Had we space enough and time, cataloguing the challenges cotton producers have faced since colonists first started growing the crop in America hundreds of years ago would offer an entertaining look at the ingenuity of farmers.

We have an abundance of neither.

So, a quick primer on cotton:

  • It’s hard to pick.
  • It’s hard to separate the lint from the seeds. And then it’s hard to separate the seed from the lint for planting.
  • It’s hard to control insects, weeds and diseases.
  • It’s awfully hard to grow without adequate water.
  • It’s hard to assemble the harvested product into a form easy to transport to market.
  • Markets are as capricious as the weather required to grow it.
“And we have more challenges ahead of us,” says Carl Anderson, Extension cotton marketing specialist at Texas A&M University.

Anderson, speaking at the recent Texas Cotton Association annual meeting in San Antonio, said a global economy has exacerbated some of the historical challenges.

“Revamping our production system poses a significant challenge for the industry,” Anderson said. “Streamlining market channels offers another, as does increasing textile manufacturing efficiency. All three segments of the industry need to do things more efficiently. And all are improving.”

He cites yield potential as a critical concern. “China has beaten our socks off (on yield) since the 1980s,” he said.

Genetic engineering plays a role in that beating. Anderson has no burrs to pick with genetic engineering and sees transgenic varieties as critical to an efficient production system.

“But under the old system, the one China has been following, breeders select the most vigorous and highest yielding plants,” he said. That system once held sway in the United States, under the old public breeding programs.

“Unfortunately, the United States backed off public breeding. China increased theirs. We went more to private company breeding and laboratory-based stacked gene varieties.”

The solution, Anderson says, is a combination of the two, continued efforts on gene and genome work and public and private breeding programs.

He said the industry also must improve harvest and ginning efficiency. “That’s where one-third of our costs occur,” he said. “Can we reduce those expenses?”

Anderson said research efforts underway would identify the best size for a gin and the necessary output to maximize efficiency. “Bigger gins must have more bales coming through. And we need to ask if we can run our gins longer, extend the ginning season.”

He said research priorities also include “block ginning” of specific varieties to improve uniformity of spinning qualities. “Researchers also are looking at wireless tags.”

Anderson said storage and transportation also warrant scrutiny so growers, ginners and merchants can “move it to foreign countries” efficiently.

He advised growers to look farther than the picker as the final step in the production process.

Marketing must play a bigger role. He recommends farmers invest a little money and a bit more time to develop marketing skills.

“In Texas, we have a Master Marketer Program, developed in 1996, that tries to get farmers to sit for eight days and think. It’s adult education and the grade is survival.”

He said the program started with A&M and got an economic boost from Texas commodity groups, including Texas Farm Bureau, as well as Cotton Incorporated and the Texas State Legislature.

During the course, a farmer completes a financial analysis of his operation, identifying strengths and weaknesses and developing a business plan.

“They meet for eight days, two days every other week for in-depth market training,” Anderson said. “We follow up with a one or two-day advanced program.”

He said 680 graduates have completed the program since 1996. “The average annual income of those graduates has improved by $32,000 per year. In total, the graduates add $20 million annually to the state’s economy.”

The course costs participants $250.

Anderson recommended growers redefine success to mean more than just big yields. “Success means the lowest possible expense to return ratio and the highest net cash for the investment per acre. It’s also the lowest possible debt to asset ratio.”

Anderson said the cotton industry has always faced, and met, challenges. Globalization, rising production costs, demand for better quality fiber and trade barriers present obstacles and opportunities, which the industry will meet.

Another primer:

  • Mechanized cotton harvest.
  • The cotton gin.
  • Modules.
  • Boll Weevil Eradication.
  • Herbicide tolerant varieties.
  • Electronic marketing.
Perhaps Eli Whitneys are waiting in the wings.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com