As chairman of the National Cotton Council, Colorado City, Texas, farmer Woody Anderson rubs shoulders with some of the industry's highest rollers, as well as some of the nation's most powerful politicians, to say nothing of the lobbyists, foreign dignitaries and various and sundry government officials, foreign and domestic, he meets on international tours and frequent treks to Washington.
But, first and foremost, Anderson is a cotton farmer and that's what provides his perspective on the industry and keeps him grounded as he represents his colleagues in trade discussions, farm legislation hearings and NCC meetings.
And, despite all the negative news about cotton recently, Anderson remains optimistic about the future. He took a few minutes during the recent NCC mid-year conference in Asheville, N.C., to talk with Southwest Farm Press about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
“Charlie Stenholm (Texas congressman) said 10 or 15 years ago that we would see significant changes in the cotton industry and those of us willing to change would make it. That was good advice then and it still is.
“As we move away from a domestic to a world cotton market we will continue to face challenges. But cotton farmers are the ultimate optimists. We'll meet the new challenges and do OK.”
Farmers savvy bunch
Cotton farmers are a more savvy bunch than some folks think, Anderson says. “A lot of people don't believe cotton farmers understand the effect the world market situation has on cotton prices. I beg to differ. I think we do.”
He's convinced that farmers recognize the needs of the industry and respond accordingly. “A good part of the Cotton Belt has seen significant improvements in cotton quality. That happened because growers know what users demand.”
He says a group of U.S. cotton farmers, including some from Texas, toured a modern Chinese textile plant last year. “They saw a bale of cotton from a Texas gin. So we know that Texas cotton quality has improved. We're meeting the challenge of providing the quality the market wants.”
Anderson says cotton farmers must continue to change and meet challenges.
“One of our biggest concerns now is to defend our farm bill,” he says. “We have budget challenges because of the deficit. But the farm bill has worked exactly as it was designed to. The government spent considerably less money than it expected (when it enacted the legislation) in 2002. To date, the program has cost $17 billion less than expected through 2003.”
That savings will not carry through next year as cotton prices have plummeted.
“We face the continuous challenge of payment limitations. But our friends in Congress did a good job designing this farm bill and we need to stay the course.”
Would be hardship
Abandoning the program now would exact a hardship on many farmers who counted on continuation of the 2002 legislation as they made long-range plans and expenditures. “Changes now would be disruptive and cause serious economic hardship across rural America,” Anderson says.
Cotton farmers have replaced worn out equipment and others have invested in infrastructure improvements. Anderson says new gins in Dumas, Texas, and Kansas indicate a commitment to cotton.
He says U.S. cotton production has been consistent for more than three decades. “We account for about 20 percent of the world's cotton supply,” he says. “That's been a pretty steady level for 30 years.
“Some think the record crop we may make this year results from increased acreage. That's not so. Favorable weather across the belt makes record production possible. It's unusual.”
Anderson says Brazil's claim that the current U.S. farm program, especially for cotton, disrupts the global market doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. “Our cotton program has a limited effect, at most, on the world market.”
He's interested to see how the recently crafted framework for discussing cotton in international trade negotiations will play out.
“It's still a question at this point,” he says. “It's a working document to get the process started. It likely will be years before we realize an end effect.”
Anderson says if everyone in the cotton business plays by the same rules U.S. growers can compete with anyone. “If everyone opens markets the way we have ours, we can be competitive,” he says. “And I'd rather have all parties at the table and playing by the same rules. That will benefit U.S. cotton growers and the entire industry.”
Anderson says China remains the renegade in cotton marketing. “I like to believe that as China begins to affect the rest of the world as it has the United States other countries will begin to put pressure on the Chinese to abide by the rules.”
He says CAFTA countries are beginning to worry about China's ability to control the world of textiles. “China affects their ability to operate, even under the CAFTA agreement,” he says.
China is expanding manufacturing capacity, some of which is highly mechanized, he says. “They're able to expand because the Chinese government subsidizes the industry with devalued currency.” Non-payment of loans also aids expansion, he says.
Anderson says growers who are aware of the global character of their business and adapt to meet new demands will, as Stenholm said, make it. And he and others will continue to represent those growers in Congress, trade discussions and anywhere else he needs to defend or support U.S. cotton.