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U.S. cotton industry needs a renaissance, Lewis says

Editor’s Note: H.L. “Hal” Lewis, cotton breeder and former director of research for Cotton Incorporated, recently was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame. Lewis discussed with freelance writer Patrick Shepherd the future of the cotton industry.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing the U.S. cotton industry today?

A: One of the biggest is how to position ourselves in the export market. Last year, we produced a little more than 24 million bales, and this year our domestic mills probably will not use more than 4.5 million bales. That means somewhere around 20 million bales have to be exported.

If you’re in the export market, fiber quality becomes extremely important. The export market runs on the Liverpool A Index. Their base is grade 31, staple 36. Ours is grade 41, staple 34. Our market structure, which is based more on discounts than premiums, suppresses any impetus in this direction by failing to assign any real monetary value to the needed fiber quality.

Since the current cotton market clearly indicates no significant monetary value associated with higher fiber quality, why should U.S. producers care about improved fiber quality?

In fact, producers have responded properly to the message from the market place, that is, quality has little or no monetary value. The opportunities available to producers for enhanced profitability are primarily increased yields, reduced production costs and avoidance of discounts.

There must be a mechanism where the value of fiber quality can be properly identified by the market. Make no mistake about it; once the market places adequate monetary value on the kinds of fiber quality it wants, the production side of the industry will respond vigorously.

The other component to making highly significant improvements in fiber quality is accelerating our genetics and breeding programs. Cottonseed companies have consolidated so much that the number of actual suppliers of varieties is limited. With fewer seed companies, growers have fewer genetic choices.

We have backed ourselves into a corner with the ability of our breeding programs to develop the higher fiber quality varieties that we need. The public or university breeding efforts release their new varieties free gratis, which gives private seed companies a wider genetic base to use. One of the big problems is we do not have a satisfactory mechanism for ensuring improved quality.

Q: In what areas have we made progress?

A: In 1968, I was director of research at the Cotton Producers Institute, which became Cotton Incorporated in 1970. At that time, we established the components of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program.

Today, this program is either completed or in some stage of completion in all regions where the boll weevil has been a problem. As a result of BWEP, we can now harvest many late bolls, which formerly served as boll weevil feed. That’s not genetics, but management. However, we’re now harvesting late bolls, which have some of the lowest fiber quality.

We have to address these issues. All of our researchers need to make the adjustment to this major change of boll weevil eradication. We need to reevaluate our genetics and our management recommendations.

Q: What can we do to help our domestic mills?

A: Our domestic mills definitely need help. Domestic mill consumption has declined from more than 11 million bales in 1997 to about 5 million bales last year. Imports of finished textile products have exploded and now dominate retail sales in the U.S. market at the expense of domestic products.

New, more efficient manufacturing procedures will, undoubtedly, be required to break out of this stalemate. Some of the needed technology is already available, namely Vortex Air Jet Spinning, which provides for dramatic improvement in yarn production. But our current fiber quality is much too variable to work in this system.

Another problem: We have fallen behind in technology and labor. We have no spinning technology in the United States — it has to come from Germany or some other country. We do not have a U.S. industry that manufactures weaving and knitting machines. We should be leading the world in technology.

Additionally, cut and sew is our weak suit because it’s labor intensive. The Asian market wage is about 39 cents per hour. Ours is more than $14 per hour. Maybe we should be looking at robotics as one answer. Research to develop automation would help put us back in a competitive position.

We have the technical know how, both from the textile engineering and the genetic engineering perspective, to significantly attenuate these problems. Surely we are intelligent and resourceful enough to overcome these problems. If we don’t, there is an excellent chance we may perish as a significant force in the cotton/textile world.

When I went to work for CI in 1968, polyester was kicking us bad and we were losing market. One of our objectives was to recapture that market, which we’ve done. For 2007, almost 40 years later, CI has a $78-million budget which it splits 60 percent for advertising and promotion and 40 percent for research.

Our advertising campaign has been a great success. We’re producing more than 20 million bales, and we’re consuming 20 million bale equivalents at the retail level. The question is whose cotton is it?

Maybe we need to spend more money for research. Maybe we need a new influx of top-notch scientists at all levels of research. We need some new minds that are not inhibited by the past and are willing to see what we can do. We did it in ’68; let’s begin in ’07.

Q: What about Brazil and the World Trade Organization (WTO)?

A: Too many people are spending too much time worrying about the Brazilians and the WTO. One guy called me to ask what I thought about the Brazilians’ suggestion that we ought to stop whatever we’re doing and stay right where we are. I said I thought it was a wonderful idea.

“You mean you agree?” he said. I said, “The U.S. retail level for cotton is more than 20 million bales per year. Let the Brazilians create their own markets instead of shipping their cotton to us. I say let them use their cotton and we’ll use ours.”

The CI advertising program works. We have a domestic retail market for every bale that we produce in the U.S. The only problem is that we’re being flooded with somebody else’s stuff. Our government is letting them do it, and the reason is what I call consumerism.

Consumerism is the perception that U.S. consumers have an inalienable right to buy whatever they need for existence — food, fiber, housing — at a price well below the cost of producing it in this country. I believe consumers should benefit from the good parts and the bad parts of our society and government, and they should have to pay for what it costs to produce a product plus a profit. If that were true, you wouldn’t need a farm program. The government doesn’t subsidize the grower, it’s subsidizes the consumer.

Someway, we’re going to have to get off dead center to correct these issues. It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s that it has to be done.

Patrick Shepherd is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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