Market sending 'mixed signals' for Georgia cotton

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some textile mills may be disparaging and even rejecting future shipments of Georgia-grown cotton, but others apparently are attempting to buy all of the fiber they can get, said Extension cotton specialist Steve Brown.

Speaking at the 18th annual Engineered Fiber Selection System Conference, Brown said Georgia growers are receiving “mixed signals” from the marketplace as they try to shed the reputation for lower quality fiber some mills assign to their cotton.

“During one of the many meetings we conducted on this subject last winter, a dealer pulled me aside and told me he understood what I was saying,” said Brown. “But he also told me that that morning a merchant had called saying he wanted to buy all the Georgia cotton he could get.

“I encountered this comment multiple times,” Brown told EFS Conference participants. “Some suggested that the demand for Georgia cotton was as strong as ever; yet, obviously, the concerns linger.”

Shortly before Brown spoke in Memphis, representatives of Frontier Spinning Mills, Inc., and Avondale Mills, Inc., outlined the difficulties they had with spinning Georgia-grown cotton. Matt Thomas, technical director for Frontier, said it would not accept Georgia cotton after this year.

If the comments rattled Brown, he didn’t show it. Saying he’s learned more about fiber quality in the last year-and-a-half Georgia quality debate than in all the previous years combined. An overriding lesson has been that one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

“The performance of a particular cotton for a specific application in one mill is not an indication of how it will perform in another mill,” he said. “What Frontier Mills means when they refer to the issue does not necessarily reflect what Avondale means.”

Although he didn’t name them, Brown said Georgia growers believe some mills have purchased discounted bales and then complained when they didn’t run like premium fiber.

“The fact or the perception that there is a production area or a growth that had a reputation or a suspicion of inferiority or some problem represents opportunity for merchants or mills,” he said. “We don’t want to provide that opportunity. We would like to move beyond and improve where we are.”

It doesn’t help, he said, that the market structure currently provides little incentive for additional quality. “It’s hard for a grower to give up 100 pounds of yield to gain a small increase in say, uniformity or staple, particularly if that is not to be rewarded.”

Georgia growers acknowledge they face “challenges” with length uniformity and short fiber content, he said. “The whys of this are somewhat unclear, but there seems to be some correlation with latitude. Uniformity numbers in the lower portion of the Cotton Belt tend to track together… toward the bottom.”

The length uniformity of bales in the Macon, Ga., USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Classing Office typically mirror those from the Phoenix, Ariz., classing office and the offices serving south Alabama and south Louisiana.

There may also be a link between uniformity issues, full-season varieties and the success of the boll weevil eradication program. “With full-season varieties and eradication we have the opportunity to consistently make a top crop,” said Brown, “and that may make uniformity a particular challenge.

“We would like to think, as we saw in 2004, that increased staple and strength minimize some of the continuing problems with Georgia cotton.”

Georgia growers also are recognizing that their decisions can influence quality. Other speakers at the EFS Conference discussed the impact of an earlier harvest and enhanced stink bug control on fiber quality.

Brown, based in Tifton, Ga., said he believes the long-term solution to the state’s perceived quality shortcomings will come through new and improved varieties, particularly those with transgenic traits.

“Those will have the herbicide and insect-resistant traits that we see today, but also have yield and superior fiber quality,” he said. “Producing the real answers in the future will be genetic improvements that bring superior fiber quality.”

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