THE FIRST time I covered the Beltwide Cotton Conferences I was about as green an Extension editor as ever tried to pass himself off as a serious agricultural journalist.

This was in 1977, I think, and the meetings were in Atlanta, a relatively short drive south from Clemson, S.C., so the trip was possible to fit into an extremely limited travel budget.

I recall sitting through a lot of presentations I didn't understand and which offered no possibility of providing fodder for stories that would justify my time and efforts away from the office.

I did come away with enough material, however, to make the trip worth the expense, thanks to some very cooperative Clemson Extension and Research scientists who helped cut through the clutter of scientific jargon and to the core of what they had to say. To this day, I owe them a debt of gratitude.

I learned, before those sessions ended, that if I didn't understand the topic title in the proceedings, chances were better than 99 to 1 that I wouldn't understand the presentation, either. So I limited myself to titles I could make sense of.

I recall visiting too many hospitality suites and drinking too many soft drinks. I ate too much food that hindered my digestion and kept me from sleeping. I also recall coming away from Atlanta with the knowledge that for anyone serious about covering cotton the Beltwide was an absolute necessity. If it was important to the cotton industry, they discussed it.

I got back to Clemson with enough notes to keep me pounding away on an old manual Underwood typewriter for the better part of two weeks. And we spent a good deal of time collating the final reports and mailing hard copies to some 200 weekly and daily newspapers throughout South Carolina as well as to several Farm Publications, including Southeast Farm Press.

Today, I'm writing from a hotel room in Anaheim, Calif., on the opening day of the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Conferences. Last night I had too many soft drinks and ate more food than my even more temperamental digestive system can bear and did not sleep well last night.

This morning I sat in on several presentations, one of which I understood. I'm currently typing on a Toshiba laptop computer from which I can transmit this story in the blink of an eye to my managing editor in Clarksdale Miss., and he can then get it in the paper which will go out tomorrow. We will not have to use up a single sheet of paper until printing begins.

We have made progress in the way we do things in journalism. And the cotton industry has come a long way since 1977, as well. As I recall, technical sessions in Atlanta included discussions on skip-row cotton, the new pyrethroid insecticides, and there were the beginnings of discussion about a radical new program that some scientists hoped would eradicate the boll weevil. And they complained about the low price of cotton.

This morning I heard discussions about the potential to transfer genes from one kind of plant or animal into a cotton plant to make it resistant to insects, diseases, drought, cold or a combination of both. They talked about planting cotton in rows as close as seven inches apart. They discussed precision agriculture, using satellites to isolate specific zones of a field that need special attention.

And they talked about the difficulty of making a profit with the price of cotton so low.

Yeah, technology has changed dramatically in the 24 years since my first Beltwide. The boll weevil is no longer an economic factor in much of the belt. Biotechnology has carved out a good niche in the industry. Potential for yield and quality improvements seems to be just around the corner. And for anyone interested in covering cotton seriously, the Beltwide Cotton Conferences is an absolute.

But the bottom line has not moved.

The heart and soul of the industry still lies in the men and women who plow the fields, spray the insects, and harvest the bolls, hoping they can get a decent price for their labors.