Chinese mills strengthen ties with Delta cotton

When asked what he liked about spinning U.S. cotton in the Lan Yan Textile Mill in the Shandong Province of China, textile manufacturer Sheng Wenzhong did not hesitate. “We like the consistent staple length and quality, and it has less contamination.”

Sheng was one of 12 Chinese textile manufacturers participating in the Cotton USA Special Trade Mission, sponsored by Cotton Council International. The 10-day tour began at the Intercontinental Exchange in New York and ended in meetings with cotton industry leaders in Fresno, Calif. In between, the group visited the farm of Clarkedale, Ark., farmer Allen Helms and Crittenden Gin Co., in which Helms is a partner.

“These types of trips are invaluable,” said Helms of the Chinese visit, which included close observations of cotton picking and ginning. “We both need a very thorough understanding of each others’ thoughts and needs. These types of exchanges are really the only way to convey that.”

The Chinese saw a Delta cotton crop that was a little later than usual. Noted Helms, “Normally, we process between 40,000 bales to 80,000 bales of cotton, depending on the acreage and the crop yield. Our acreage is much smaller this year, and we will gin less cotton. We’re also very late in harvesting our cotton. Normally, we’d be very busy this time of the year. We’re about two weeks later than normal.”

There was some cotton being ginned for the Chinese to see — a dryland customer who had hauled cotton to the gin in trailers.

Helms noted that the gin’s warehouse holds about 100,000 bales, “and we’re starting this fall with about 60,000 bales on hand, which has to do with the large carryover of stock in the United States.”

The Chinese seemed surprised when told that bales were not shipped as they were grouped in the warehouse, instead warehousemen cherry-pick individual bales by bale number from any part of the warehouse.

Sheng said another reason he likes U.S. cotton is he is able to purchase by net weight rather than gross weight. Gross weight includes the weight of bagging and ties, and is how Chinese textile mill manufacturers purchase cotton domestically.

When asked if he was allowed to purchase as much U.S. cotton as he wanted to, and if his purchases were impacted by a quota, Sheng compared U.S. and China trade policies in a lighthearted manner. “The United has a quota system for imported textiles, right? We have the same system.”

Asked how U.S. cotton might improve its cotton, he noted, “We see a lot of problems with stickiness. It’s much stickier than other cottons. The problem is not as serious as it was a few years ago.”

When asked whether the textile mill growth has slowed down in recent months, Sheng said that it had. “This is the unavoidable stage for the development of any industry, including the Chinese textile industry.”

He also said that the U.S. financial crisis was affecting the Chinese economy “very much. In the coming months, the subprime lending crisis will continue to affect the Chinese economy. Leading textile mills don’t have a problem with importing more cotton even under the current financial situation. But the struggling mills cannot afford to import U.S. cotton.” But he also said that the price for Chinese domestic cotton versus that of U.S. cotton was about the same at the end of September.

Sheng was born and raised in an urban setting in China and started to work early in his life at the mill. He drives to work, a luxury not common among Chinese, although automobile use in the country is on the rise.

Sheng’s mill uses about 50,000 tons of cotton annually and manufactures denim fabric and denim garments.

Another member of the group, Xiachi Chen with Texhong Textile Group, Ltd., said the tour has been helpful. “We have a better understanding of cotton production in the United States, which will help us to keep using U.S. cotton.”

The United States exported approximately 4.4 million bales to China in 2007-08, and current 2008-09 sales to that country have reached about 1.4 million bales. The Chinese textile mills represented on the tour consume more than 3.2 million bales, with U.S. imports of about 1.3 million bales — almost one-third of U.S. cotton sales to China last year.

“It is impossible to overstate how important a customer China is for U.S. cotton,” Robert Weil II, CCI president, said. “This type of visit will enable these Chinese manufacturers to grow even more comfortable with our fiber and with our industry as a reliable supplier.”

China is the world’s largest importer of cotton, with 12 million bales estimated for this coming year. China is expected to consume 53 million bales in 2008-09.

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