There was an instantaneous roar of applause from the 100 or so cotton farmers attending a recent tour of Cotton Incorporated.

The outburst didn’t come from news of solving the problem of resistant weeds, or the loss of Temik or of lowering the input costs of growing cotton in any way.

The response by cotton growers came from news that has a much more direct impact on the bottom line of growers across the Cotton Belt.

Mark Messura, senior vice-president for global supply chain marketing for Cotton Incorporated, had just announced that Under Armor, a company whose advertising campaign once proclaimed ‘cotton is the enemy’ will soon have cotton in 25 percent of their entire sports clothing line of apparel.

Considerably more than a moral victory for cotton growers, Messura’s announcement means cotton now has a firm foothold in what used to be enemy territory.

Improving cotton usage in the burgeoning athletic sportswear industry is one of the keys to increasing cotton’s market share in the world apparel industry.

Upping market share isn’t a small deal. A drop of one percent in market share means a loss of 360,000 bales of cotton to rayon, nylon, or any number of other synthetic materials used to make clothes.

A patented process called TransDry, developed by researchers at Cotton Incorporated, appears to be opening up the athletic wear industry once owned lock, stock and barrel by synthetics.

“It’s just a fact of life that when you sweat you’re uncomfortable. Athletes can’t perform to their highest level of performance, if their clothes stick to their arms and legs. Staying dry is a big deal in that market and TransDry is the best thing out there to keep you dry in a sweaty situation,” Messura says.

Company’s like Under Armor can market TransDry by whatever clever names they wish. The important thing for U.S. cotton growers is that these companies can’t use the patented process unless they use cotton in the garment.

Currently Puma Golf, Bobby Jones and Under Armor use the TransDry process. A number of other companies use the process for men’s and women’s active wear and underwear.

More cotton will be used

The end result is a lot more cotton will be used in the future in football, basketball and baseball uniforms and many, many other items that come under the heading of active wear and sports wear.

Storm Denim and Storm Cotton are two other processes developed by Cotton Inc. that continue to protect the denim market for U.S. cotton growers.

During his presentation at the recent Cotton Inc. grower tour, Messura paused poured himself a full glass of water — the crowd thought to clear his throat. Instead he held up a pair of jeans made with Storm Denim and doused the garment with a glass of water.

Amazingly, the jeans were perfectly dry. The only thing wet was the carpet in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Raleigh.

Storm Denim and Storm Cotton are now being used in a multitude of garments that were once the domain of polyester. Like Transdry, Storm Cotton and Storm Denim show up in retail stores under myriad names.

L.L. Bean, for example, markets a line of denim jeans and canvas pants made from the new cotton process. Messura also doused a heavy cotton windbreaker with water — same result — a maintenance problem for the Marriott. No longer does a windbreaker have to be nylon or any polyester, he noted.

While L.L. Bean may be the most visible user of the new process, companies like 5.11 tactical that sells uniforms to fire fighters and a number of other professions that require lightweight, yet worker friendly materials; and Williamson Dickie, who sell the process as StormFleece hooded jackets, are likely to use more cotton.

How cotton ranks in the multi-billion dollar apparel industry, compared to a myriad of polyester fabrics is a lifeline for the U.S. industry and impacts the economic lives of cotton farmers all over the world.

This year cotton has 61 percent market-share in the apparel and non-woven markets. Every time market share drops one percent, about 175 million fewer pounds of cotton are used in clothes, diapers, baby wipes and a number of other cotton products.

Fortunately, demand for cotton has been on the incline for the past decade. Despite ups and downs in cotton prices over the past decade, market share for cotton products has inched up about one percent per year.

At today’s price for cotton, a continued one percent gain over the next 10 years would mean about $20 billion to the cotton industry. The biggest beneficiaries of such an increase would almost certainly be cotton farmers.

It’s no secret the future looks bright for cotton over the next few years. Bright does not equate to guaranteed, however.

Worldwide cotton stocks stand at about 35 percent, down from 50 percent just a couple of years back. The downward trend in cotton stocks bodes well for high prices for farmers, but it’s a very slippery slope.

Competition for acreage

A big challenge for cotton in the U.S. is competition for acreage. When cotton prices topped a dollar a pound other crops, especially grain crops, didn’t just fold the tent. In fact grain stocks, primarily soybeans, corn and wheat are at or near all time lows, with no real strong indication that is likely to change anytime soon.

In the Southeast, peanuts — minor crop on the world scene, but big in the area — more than followed suit with prices.

While most growers sold their peanuts for something close to $600 per ton, plenty of peanuts will sell for more than $800 per ton. Economists contend $700 per ton peanuts equates to $1.00 per pound cotton, with average yields for both crops.

Likewise the business side of cotton shares some compelling challenges. Messura used the analogy of the cotton business versus a hypothetical pencil business. “You (farmers in the audience) are all businessmen and women. If you were in the business of selling pencils consider these options.

You have two suppliers of pencils. Supplier one sends you pencils of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Some of the pencils are long, some are short and some are sharpened and some aren’t. Plus on your best day you have 3 percent waste with these pencils and on your worst day 15 percent. And, the price of these pencils is highly volatile.

Supplier two sends you pencils that are uniform size, color, shape and they are all sharpened. There is no waste and the price remains constant for months at a time.

Which supplier would you use,” Messura asked the growers?

In the apparel and non-woven industry cotton is the first supplier and polyester is the second supplier.

“Why do companies like Under Armor come to us and want to know how they can use cotton in their products,” Messura asks? Because it’s natural, it’s traditional, it’s comfortable, it’s fashionable, and most of all it’s marketable, the Cotton Incorporated executive explains.

To remain marketable, cotton has to maintain its market dominance in denim and t-shirts and build its market share in women’s apparel, athletic wear and in non-woven products like baby diapers and wipes, he adds.

New technologies, like Storm Denim and TransDry, continue driving market growth, but growers are intrinsically linked to this growth. Growing better cotton, ginning better cotton and, very importantly, shipping better cotton in a highly efficient ways are critical keys to maintaining and building market share.

rroberson@farmpress.com