Eliminating the scourge of U.S. cotton — the boll weevil — offers opportunities for U.S. cotton production. According to Hal Lewis, cotton breeder and former director of research for Cotton Incorporated, producers might benefit again from growing the high fiber quality varieties commonly grown before the invasion of the weevil.

“The parent stocks of American upland long staple were derived from Mexican cottons,” says Lewis, who lives in Conway, Ark. “The Mexican cottons possessed enough genetic diversity to provide the length, fineness and other characteristics contained in the American upland long staple varieties.

“In the letters and papers of William Dunbar, who lived in the early 1800s, it was stated that the new cottons from Mexico, when brought to Mississippi, were of rich color, very silky, fine and strong. For example, the Mexican variety Alvardo had long and fine staple. Another Mexican variety, Belle Creole, was improved and grown by H.W. Vick of Vicksburg, Miss., in the 1830s and 1840s.”

Vick grew these Mexican varieties and selected the ones adapted to his area. In the early 1840s, he released Jethro, a silk cotton variety. In 1846, a small packet of Jethro seed was sent to J.V. Jones of Herndon, Ga., who grew the cotton in 1847 and 1848. In 1849, he had enough seed to plant an acre from which a bale was produced. This bale was sold on the nearby Augusta market where it was pronounced by merchants as the best cotton ever sold on that market — even better than Sea Island cotton.

Some of this cotton was shipped to a world exposition in London where it created a whirlwind of attention because of its high quality. On the basis of these reports, the production of Jethro and other upland long staple varieties was expanded significantly in the U.S. Cotton Belt. These varieties were reported to be long (1.25 to 1.5 inches), very fine, and lustrous. “They probably weren’t exceptionally strong as far as individual fiber strength. We have better strength today,” Lewis says. “However, they were fine, which means in order to make a 22 yarn, you could put five times as much fiber into that cross section of that yarn as you could if you were using coarse cotton.”

Boll weevil invasion

In the early part of the 20th century, the Mexican boll weevil invaded the U.S. Cotton Belt, moving quickly into Texas and spreading eastward to the Carolinas. For a time, it appeared that the boll weevil would eradicate cotton production from the United States.

“The boll weevil was probably the most defining change in the cotton industry we’ve ever experienced,” Lewis says. “In order to live with it, we had to change our cotton varieties. R. L. Bennett of USDA and E. C. Ewing of Mississippi State University in conjunction with other cotton state experiment stations developed new genetic types — earlier, more determinate varieties that could be produced with boll weevil pressure. That was a big change from what we previously grew.

“Many sorts of early short staple varieties were tried in the Mississippi Valley as well as elsewhere in the Cotton Belt. These new varieties were early, fast-fruiting types but their fiber quality was inferior to the long staple varieties that they replaced. They produced good crops, but the lint was so much reduced in quality that former customers found it not suitable to meet the needs of their clientele.”

Eventually, the cotton industry responded by developing an eradication program that worked so well that today the boll weevil has been effectively removed from the U.S. Cotton Belt.

“However, we’re basically still growing the same genetics — fast fruiting, early determinate plants — that were developed to counter the boll weevil,” Lewis says. “We no longer have the boll weevil so we now can stop breeding for it. We have the opportunity to revisit our older, higher quality germplasm that we grew before the boll weevil. It’s time that we go back and take a close look at the upland long staple cottons as a source of new genes to raise the current cotton production system to a new level of competitive capability in the global cotton textile industry. This whole germplasm collection is stored at Texas A&M, and is run by the USDA. I encourage Cotton Incorporated to help fund the efforts of the public research institutions to work with these old upland cottons.

“In the past, we stopped breeding long season cotton because by the time you reached August, the boll weevil would eat you up. We developed short, determinate plants that have 12 to 14 fruiting branches instead of 48. I’m not proposing that we grow plants that mature that late. I am proposing that we need to examine exactly what we need to be growing. What does the best job for the least input?

“Let’s cross the genes of the older varieties into ones we’re growing today. You try to get the best attributes of both into one. It’s possible to breed a longer-season variety that will have much superior fiber quality.”

Reward growers

Lewis also urged the cotton industry to develop an accurate and reliable methodology for estimating the magnitude and variance of critical fiber properties. “It is equally essential that the marketplace establish equitable value parameters for such fiber attributes so that the economic interest of all parties are fairly recognized. We must reward growers for producing this higher fiber quality cotton. The present marketing system refuses to place value on good, desirable traits. It also must be recognized that cotton is not really a commodity but is truly an identity preserved product. With cotton, every bale is classified, and its properties are measured on its own and stay with it and are never mixed until it reaches the textile mill.

“The cotton industry needs to step forward and provide the leadership and direction which will motivate the science and technology sectors to ensure future success in global competition. We cannot wait for the future; we must create it ourselves.”

Lewis led preliminary work that resulted in the development of the cotton module builder, the boll weevil eradication program and the micronaire test procedure that helps producers find the best time to defoliate and harvest. Lewis also introduced three cotton varieties, four commercial soybean varieties and two commercial grain sorghum hybrids. He currently serves as president and general manager of Scientific Seed Company. In 2007, he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame for making significant contributions to the state’s agriculture.