West Texas now produces some of the highest quality cotton in the United States, a significant turnaround from just a few years ago when High Plains farmers suffered a reputation for producing low-grade lint.
Industry observers point to improved varieties and management techniques for the dramatic change. And they say innovations from the USDA-ARS Cotton Production and Processing Research Unit (locally known as the gin lab) in Lubbock put West Texas cotton on par with much of California's crop.
Little wonder then that cotton ginners, farmers and folks in allied industries expressed shock when the USDA recently recommended eliminating funding for the lab in its latest budget proposal.
“We were caught off guard,” said Tony Williams, executive vice president and treasurer, Texas Cotton Ginners Association, at a press briefing during the annual Texas Cotton Gin Show at Lubbock.
“We thought we had put this issue behind us two years ago, so this came out of the blue,” Williams said.
The Bush administration also tagged the gin lab for closure two years ago but an industry outcry saved the facility. They hope to do that again.
At stake is only a $1.2 million annual expenditure for USDA, but a significant loss to West Texas cotton farmers, ginners, and the High Plains economy.
“The Texas cotton economy has benefited greatly from research conducted by the Lubbock Gin Lab,” said Chris Breedlove, an Olton, Texas, ginner and president of the National Cotton Ginners Association. “Cotton quality has increased significantly in the High Plains and Texas cotton now rates among the highest quality produced in the United States. Much of this quality improvement can be attributed to the technology transfer that has occurred from the Lubbock Gin Lab to our ginners as they seek to provide the highest quality fiber possible.”
He said the Lubbock lab is the only gin research facility in the country researching quality issues related to mechanical stripper harvesting and ginning stripper-harvested cotton.
“No other ginning lab in the world has this focus,” Breedlove said.
He said the lab also leads in research to develop more accurate methods of determining particulate emissions from gins. The goal, he said, is to develop “economically feasible options to reduce these emissions. Recently, the cotton industry proposed a plan to establish reliable estimates of current gin emissions. With the Lubbock Gin Lab's expertise in emissions research, the industry is looking to the Lubbock Lab to carry out the bulk of this work.”
“This laboratory has historically focused on issues related specifically to this region's harvesting and growing methods,” said Jim Bradford, president, Texas Cotton Ginners' Association. “Issues faced by cotton growers in Texas are different from those in the Mid-South, the Southeast or the Western United States.”
Bradford said the reach of the lab extends beyond West Texas into New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. “This area has always been a large part of the world's cotton market but is now projected to be responsible for more than half the U.S. cotton acreage this year.”
He said as other historical cotton producing regions cut back acreage in favor of grains or soybeans, West Texas has broken records for production and quality. “Why would anyone propose closure of a research facility right at the forefront of all this success?”
He said quality issues continue to gain importance in cotton markets as more and more of the U.S. crop is exported. “It is increasingly important to meet or exceed the quality expectations of foreign markets.”
Moisture content control is one of those issues. “Some of the leading work on measuring cotton moisture, as well as understanding the effects of cotton moisture is done at the Lubbock Gin Lab.”
Bradford said scientists at the Lubbock Gin Lab also do environmental regulation studies. “Few environmental scientists in the United States understand how agriculture works and how we fit into these environmental regulations. Most of these individuals are in the USDA, and several are employed at this laboratory.”
Barry Evans, incoming president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., said he depends on a combination of allied industries and research entities to help produce high quality cotton. “I don't farm in a vacuum,” he said. “And one of the most important (entities) is the USDA Agricultural Research Service Ginning Laboratory here in Lubbock. As a cotton producer the USDA-ARS Gin Lab is important to my farm. The membership of Plains Cotton Growers strongly encourages our elected representatives in Congress to recognize the value this facility provides to our region and work to maintain support for it in the new budget.”
Evans said the gin lab hones in on specific challenges High Plains cotton growers face, including harvest efficiency and methodology.”
He said recent shifts in cotton variety options for the region brought the realization that the harvest techniques used for many years need updating. Changes in harvest aid programs and potential to pick instead of strip cotton provide new challenges to growers. “Add the new wrinkle of on-board moduling systems on new John Deere and Case cotton pickers and it becomes clear that growers have a lot of questions that can best be answered with the assistance of the experts at the Lubbock Gin Lab. Those are the same kinds of questions the lab helped answer during development and introduction of the bur extractor on cotton pickers and strippers and development and introduction of present-day cotton moduling and transportation systems. They are also the reason this facility was created.”
Speakers also pointed out that West Texas is the most important cotton production area in the country and probably the world. Texas will account for half the country's acreage this year. West Texas, the area served by the Lubbock Gin Lab, will produce one-third the nation's cotton acreage.
It makes little sense, speakers said, to close a gin lab that performs such essential research in an area with such unique growing conditions.
Gary Gregory, chairman of the Lubbock chamber of commerce, said the lab is indicative of the city's strong dependence on agriculture. “The lab is a leader in research and we encourage continued funding. It is important to Lubbock's economy.”