While the U.S. cotton industry faces its fair share of hurdles including lower prices and the current and next farm bills, there’s good news to share about the nation’s natural fiber industry.
Bruce Atherley says, “Exports of U.S. cotton are at the second highest level in 50 years. It’s been a great year for U.S. cotton.”
Atherley is the executive director of Cotton Council International (CCI) – the export-promotion arm of the National Cotton Council. He shared encouraging cotton news with 150 cotton enthusiasts gathered for the 2017 Arizona Cotton Industry Meeting held at Flagstaff in June.
And there’s more good cotton export news - “U.S. exports of raw cotton through mid-May were 65 percent higher,” Atherley reported. “USDA is calling for 14.5 to 14.7 million bales of cotton exports by the U.S.”
Total U.S. cotton exports for yarn and fiber is expected to increase to 17.5 million bales “so it’s been a terrific year,” the CCI leader said.
Who’s buying U.S. cotton?
With U.S. cotton exports booming, who is buying? Most of the fiber is headed to Asia.
Vietnam is the No. 1 buyer of U.S. cotton, a position traditionally held by China until its government began to sell off large cotton reserves several years ago. As Chinese cotton stocks shrink, Atherley expects China will regain top buyer status in about two years.
Rounding out the Top 10 buyers include Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Korea, Bangladesh, and Thailand.
“U.S. cotton had a huge year in India and Pakistan. U.S. exports to India were at the largest level in 17 years. Much of it was extra-long staple Supima cotton.”
CCI was founded 60 years ago to help sell U.S.-grown cotton. It’s a non-profit organization funded by the U.S. government and the U.S. cotton industry. CCI reaches out to about 50 countries and has offices in 15 countries around the world.
Under Atherley’s leadership, CCI has revised its mission statement to be more proactive by:
· Making U.S. cotton the preferred fiber, preferred over other countries’ cotton and over synthetic fibers;
· Commanding a value-added premium that drives profitability; and
· Driving export growth of U.S. cotton through fiber, yarn, or value-added cotton products.
The cotton leader says CCI’s “aspirational goal” is “20-in-20,” expanding this year’s U.S. cotton exports at about 17.5 million bales to 20 million bales by 2020.
New kid on the block
If Atherley’s name doesn’t ring a bell he never worked directly in agriculture before gaining his CCI post two years ago, and had never been in a cotton field.
Atherley’s trade for nearly 30 years was marketing, including hawking major cereal brands including Cheerios and Wheaties. He’s using his successful marketing skills to market U.S. cotton as premium cotton, considered higher quality fiber than other cottons grown worldwide.
Atherley said, “Our intent is to build the Cotton USA brand into a true global brand that translates into high quality premium cotton,” Atherley said.
In doing so, Atherley has traveled to 20 countries and traveled 250,000 miles touting this message.
He defines a brand as a “promise” – the statement made to customers or consumers to identify what they should expect from all interaction with your people, product, services, and company.
“We’re telling people around the world that Cotton USA is the cotton the world trusts.”
Atherley says, “U.S. cotton is not a commodity but a brand – a premium brand. It should be preferred.”
He shared with the crowd a quantitative research study where consumers in other counties were asked if they would pay more money for U.S.-grown cotton due to its higher quality. Two-thirds said yes.
Premium cotton, pricing
Touting U.S. cotton as the best cotton can improve pricing, Atherley says. Yet a premium price means U.S. cotton should be free of contaminants, including plastic.
Atherley interviewed cotton millers and manufacturers around the world. Most of them said plastic contamination was a problem for their respective companies but also that U.S. cotton should be contaminant free.
“If we’re going to get a premium price in an industry where margins are tight-tight-tight we must have the best product,” he said. “We must keep talking about contamination because it’s important to U.S. cotton’s quality message.”
At the federal level, Reece Langley of the National Cotton Council’s Washington, DC office said farm policy continues as the top issue facing the U.S. cotton industry, including “trying to determine what can be done between now and the next farm bill to get economic relief to the industry.”
The cotton industry continues to deal with low fiber prices and other issues that threaten the industry’s future.
“In the next farm bill, No. 1 on the list for cotton is a Title I commodity policy, and getting cotton back in this program. It’s needed so the industry has an equitable level of support during periods of depressed prices and revenue,” Langley said.
Looking at trade issues, the cotton lobbyist said the NCC wants to ensure that any changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement continue to boost U.S. trade. The cotton group always has in its sights on expanded market access opportunities.
“China in the next few years may hold some additional market access for U.S. cotton.”
On the World Trade Organization (WTO) front, Langley does not want U.S. cotton policy to be negatively impacted in future WTO negotiations like what occurred in the Brazil-WTO case.
Improved cotton varieties
Also discussing cotton at the event was Randy Norton, University of Arizona statewide cotton specialist who conducts annual cotton variety trials at cotton-growing locations across the Grand Canyon State. He praised new cotton varieties and genetics which combined with grower management tools can provide higher yields and improved fiber quality.
Over the last decade of his cotton trials, Norton has found significant lint differences between the lowest- and highest-yielding varieties.
“We’ve seen yield differences up to 500 pounds of lint between the low- and high-performing varieties. It’s a significant difference which can vary in different growing regions.”
Norton has also noted fiber quality differences in the eight cent per pound range. His 2016 variety trial findings are available on the UA website.
“My take home message on variety selection is it’s important for cotton producers to review as much data as possible, including local, regional, and national data. Talk with your neighbors, seed company representatives, and university specialists.”
Norton suggests that cotton growers across the cotton belt visit the www.seedmatrix.com website, a nationwide database of cotton variety information, including cotton trial data from across the country.
“The website is a powerful database which helps determine the stability and fit of a variety in a particular growing region.”