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Policy issues, too

Cotton leaders urged to agree on technology "A CHRONIC absence of profitability and a heavy dependence on government assistance" make it necessary that the cotton industry focus more of its efforts on technology to improve yield and quality, National Cotton Council President Robert McLendon says.

"We have to find some solutions and we have to do it quickly," he said at the kickoff session of the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Conferences at Anaheim, Calif.

"Never has it been more important for us to bring together the industry's collective intellectual and financial resources."

This must also include, McLendon says, an intensive effort to develop specific policy recommendations as the new presidential administration and Congress move toward developing a new farm bill to replace the Freedom to Farm act.

The Leary, Ga. producer met recently with President-elect George Bush, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Agriculture-designate Ann Veneman for a wide-ranging discussion of agricultural issues."I came away with the impression that they will be supportive of policy adjustments aimed at shoring up producer income."

Technology, McLendon says, has been the salvation for many growers, particularly in the Southeast region where he farms. "It put us back in the cotton business after the boll weevil ran us out."

Pyrethroid insecticides were the first wave of chemistry advances, he notes, but only a partial answer. "It was hard to make any money when 18 to 20 sprayings per season were required."

The boll weevil eradication program, advances in equipment technology, genetically engineered varieties, and other developments, and more sophisticated chemistries have given growers excellent new tools, he says, but "a combination of yield and quality losses has wrung most of the profits out of cotton production," costing growers as much as 10-12 cents per pound.

Concerns about staple length and micronaire, combined with yield declines, have delivered a triple whammy to growers, McLendon says. "There's no shortage of theories about possible causes, but there's very little information that can be called conclusive."

The National Cotton Council's Quality Task Force is working to advance quality and yield, he says. "We are becoming more involved in cotton seed breeding programs by state researchers to encourage more participation in localized breeding programs and to insure the maintenance of publicly-developed strains as public property"

But, he says, there is concern that the basic genetic components of today's dominant varieties may not be stress-tolerant. "A major concern is that cotton seed breeding programs that have focused on genetic modifications or obtaining other specific fiber properties may have lost seed vigor in the process."

Changes in farm policy will be extensively debated, McLendon says, but the new administration and Congress are looking for specific policy recommendations. Industry segments will need to reach consensus in several key areas to present in February hearings on commodity titles scheduled by House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest

Among the principles the cotton industry supports, McLendon says, are (1) a better income safety net than the fixed payment scheme under the current Freedom to Farm act; (2) retaining as much planting flexibility as possible; (3) a high priority on retaining a marketing loan keyed to the world market price and operated in concert with a three-step competitiveness plan; and (4) minimal impact of payment limitations on program participants.

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