Bill Robertson steps a few rows into a verification field west of Marianna, Ark. A baseball has somehow managed to find its way into the seedlings. He brushes the dirt from the seams and tosses it into the yard of the nearest house.
“Can’t have kids wondering where their ball is,” Robertson chuckles beneath a cowboy hat.
After eight years with the National Cotton Council, a happy Robertson is back for a second stint as University of Arkansas cotton specialist.
How has he found things since returning?
“I am really impressed with our (Extension) agents that were new when I left. They are on the ball with not only their research but the way they interact with producers. And it’s great that they’re up to speed on new technologies and other things because when they’re asked a question by farmers they can answer it.”
One marked change during his time away has been the drop in cotton acres.
As for 2014, “it’s kind of early to tell exactly what our state cotton acreage will be this year. There has been some replanting this spring, but not a lot.
“In a broader sense, I think – and others have said the same thing -- we’ve hit the bottom in terms of acreage and will now rebound. When I left Arkansas, acreage was generally around the one million mark. In 2013, we were at 300,000 acres. In 2014, I think acreage will be up a bit.”
When the National Cotton Council released its survey in February, “it said Mid-South cotton acreage would be up everywhere but Arkansas. I believe the survey showed a five percent decrease in acreage. That kind of puzzled a lot of people and many Arkansas producers were left wondering how that could be true.
“Now, there are definitely areas where cotton acres are down. But, overall, I think we’ll be up a bit over 2013.”
Corn and soybean prices will be a determining factor. “A lot of people I talk to have said if corn hits the $4 range it would take that crop out of the major part of their rotation. Five dollar corn is hard to turn away from and soybean prices are holding up well -- between $12 and $12.50. It’s very competitive for acres, right now.
“Corn is a great rotation crop with cotton. One year of corn followed by two years of cotton is really beneficial in many ways. Even the second year of cotton behind corn adds a lot to yield.”
Boll weevil eradication
What about boll weevil eradication?
“Right now, the bottom line is that the eradication crew is doing a bang-up job of reducing costs, keeping the program within its means and paying off debt. We’re doing well keeping trap lines up, monitoring for the weevil while picking up the benefits of not having to fight this pest anymore.
“I think the biggest issue this year is in the past we’ve used the FSA cotton certification acreage numbers. Unfortunately, the timing for our eradication effort -- what we need to establish cotton acreage, send bills to the producer, get gin certificates -- really doesn’t match up with the FSA timing anymore.
“Since there’s a timing bottleneck our farmers now have to register directly with the eradication people. The eradication crew will come out to the farm and check the maps and fields with the producer establishing the correct number of acres. Then, the bill can be properly worked up and processed in a timely manner. That’s very important, and also very different from what we’ve done previously.”
Robertson insists the future for cotton is bright. “If you look at the cotton industry as a whole, one thing I think is worth watching is the Cotton LEADS program (http://www.cottonleads.org/). Brands and retailers are really pushing for responsibly-produced cotton. In response, the U.S. cotton industry, NCC, Cotton Incorporated, Cotton Council International and the Australian cotton industry have come together for this program.”
The Cotton LEADS website claims the program is “committed to responsible cotton production and is founded on core principles that are consistent with sustainability, the use of best practices and traceability in the supply chain.”
Robertson says Cotton LEADS isn’t the only program aiming to give the cotton users what they want. Another is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI http://bettercotton.org/about-bci/).
The BCI “is a good program but it seems to work best in countries where the rules and regulations surrounding cotton production aren’t as strict as in the United States and Australia. Here, we have so many hoops to jump through, so many regulations to follow -- from the EPA to worker protection, child labor to pesticide use on and on. All those regulations meet, or exceed, those required by the BCI.”
The BCI, says a dedicated website, “exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future…
“To achieve this mission, BCI works with a diverse range of stakeholders across the cotton supply chain to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities and the economies of cotton-producing areas.”
Robertson says “for the countries without such tight regulations, (a BCI) inspector will come to fields and certify the initiative’s rules are being followed. Someone has to pay those inspectors and other program costs. Regardless, the BCI provides a service that allows those less transparent countries a way to get their cotton to pickier markets.”
Company wishes must be accounted for, says Robertson. “Companies now want the tags in their clothes to read ‘the cotton used in this clothing was produced in a responsible manner.’ Since U.S. and Australian cotton is already able to provide that, we’re in the driver’s seat.
“Our competition is no longer other countries but man-made fibers. So what are we going to do to in response? The market wants ‘responsibly-produced’ cotton.”
Field to market/new technologies
Part of the answer, he says, is the Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (http://www.fieldtomarket.org/about-us/). “Major companies like Monsanto, General Grains and Wal-Mart are members.
“One of the things the alliance does is an indicators report. They study publically available data – like from the USDA – and see what progress is being made in crops.
“I believe the last report on cotton shows that from 1980 to the present, we need 30 percent less land to grow a unit of cotton. So, for a pound of cotton, the farmer uses 30 percent less land now than he did in 1980. We also use 75 percent less irrigation water to grow a pound of cotton than in 1980. Soil erosion has been reduced 68 percent and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions reduced 31 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The Cotton LEADS program offers a reliable source of responsibly produced cotton to the market with no additional costs.
“These things will be adopted when farmers see that they swell the bottom line. If there aren’t financial gains adoption won’t happen.”
While companies have their desires, cotton farmers are pining for promised new technologies. Producers “really want to get their hands on some of the new technologies. Some of the producers at a multi-county IPM meeting today told me they need the 2,4-D technology, the dicamba technology. And they want it now.
“Resistant weeds are just killing us. It’s very difficult to grow a crop without the ability to go Liberty over-the-top. But it’s worth remembering that Liberty isn’t the silver bullet and neither is 2,4-D or dicamba.”
The ability of U.S. cotton producers “to effectively utilize new technology is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. I would like to see Arkansas producers lead this effort for the U.S. Cotton industry.”