NC Cotton farmers produce more but profit less

Every eight minutes, like clockwork, a specially fitted tractor chugs out to the middle of Gene West's field and scoops up another yellow tube stuffed with a ton of cotton.

With a mechanical groan, the tractor hauls it from the field to be processed, scattering in its wake spits of white into an unending buzz saw of noise and dust. By the end of a daylong shift, more than 50 tons of fiber and seeds will have been separated at West's Corner Cotton Gin, creating enough fiber to provide every person in Cumberland County a T-shirt and a pair of socks.

"It's all just fluffy white stuff when you look at it from a distance," said West, sifting a handful of raw cotton in his hands. "But after a good harvest, we've got a lot of work to do."

And this was a good – make that a very good – year for cotton in North Carolina.

After seasons of sparse rain and roasting sun, conditions were right for a banner year across the state. The N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services estimates each planted acre averaged a yield of 993 pounds of raw cotton. That's more than 300 pounds per acre better than the previous year.

The estimated state harvest of 1.2 million bales, or nearly 290,000 tons, was the highest in 20 years and came despite many farmers reducing their acreage.

But mounds of cotton don't mean mounds of cash for growers. Slow economic conditions worldwide have led to a cotton surplus.

"Conditions for cotton in North Carolina were excellent this past year," said Kent Messick, a field services officer for the state Department of Agriculture. "Rainfall was adequate, and we didn't have any tropical storms to damage the fields.

"But the worldwide supply led to depressed prices. And it will likely lead to fewer acres of cotton being planted next season."

This year, mounds of brightly wrapped cotton, called modules, popped up like big yellow mushrooms so quickly and thickly that West figures his employees may still be ginning the harvest while everyone else is watching the ACC basketball tournament.

When the season is finished, the cotton from fields primarily in Sampson, Harnett and Johnston counties will be shipped around the world. Some of it will find its way back to shops and stores in the Cape Fear region as anything from yarn to shirts and pants to cooking oil and animal feed.

"Cotton is a lot more than clothing now," West said. "It may start the same as it always did, but it can end up in a lot of different products."

A century ago, cotton was the king of crops in North Carolina. According to the Department of Agriculture, the value of the cotton crop topped every other in the state, including tobacco. In the mid-1920s, nearly 2 million acres of farmland was dedicated to cotton.

By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to about 42,000 acres.

What happened? The boll weevil was one culprit. The longtime scourge of cotton growers across the South had literally sucked the life out of the crop in state.

State agriculture records indicate that losses of 20 percent or more of crops to boll weevils were common. The state embarked on a major eradication project at that point, but many farmers had opted to switch to safer crops. Tobacco and soybeans became dominant.

At the same time, synthetic fibers became more popular in fashion. By the end of the 1970s, cotton fields in central North Carolina were a rarity. It was just too much work for growers for too little money.

By the early 1990s, the boll weevils and synthetic fashion tastes were gone. A booming market for natural fiber sparked a cotton revival around the world.

Nearly all of North Carolina's cotton goes from the field to foreign countries. China is by far the largest market for American cotton, followed by Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia.

First, however, the fiber goes through a multistep process at spots like West's Corner Cotton Gin. Each module is electronically labeled before being fed into an elaborate system of heaters and air dryers designed to remove moisture and debris from the seed cotton.

"Each module holds about 100 pounds of trash," West said, having to yell to be heard above the roar of the processors. "Another 50 pounds is moisture."

The rest – cotton lint and seed – is ripped apart in a series of saw blades in a process that effectively has not changed in 200 years. The lint travels through tubes to be formed into 480-pound bales. The seeds and clinging fibers are blown by compressed air into a separate building, where they are piled into trailers and hauled by rail for processing.

Before wrapping, each bale has a shoebox-size chunk removed. It is electronically coded and shipped to Florence, S.C., for grading. Each sample is judged for fiber length, strength and color. The judging number determines how much the bale sells for, currently an average of about 80 cents per pound.

"The differences will determine how that lint is used," West said. "Longer, stronger fibers bring a higher price and are used in higher-end fabric."

Local cotton lint has one of two destinations. It's either shipped to Gastonia, to the largest yarn production plants in the world, or shipped to a port in the Southeast for export to mills in Central America, Pakistan or Turkey.

The seed is loaded onto rail cars and shipped to processing plants. Over the past couple of years, much of this product has been shipped directly to Texas, the nation's largest cotton grower.

"The drought has been so bad out there, they can't produce enough seed for processing," West said. "They're buying up the surplus. There's a constantly growing demand for seed."

The same can't be said for cotton fiber. Messick notes that a sluggish economy and increased international cultivation has hit the domestic market.

Last year's cotton price was nearly $1 per pound of lint. This year's average price dropped as low as 70 cents per pound before rising to 80 cents.

Processed cotton can be stored for extended periods. Millions of tons from this year's crop will be warehoused overseas, so even a bumper crop will bring less money than in years past.

As a result, state agriculture officials anticipate a drop in cotton acreage. Messick said corn, soybeans and grain sorghum may replace some of the cotton planted in the Cape Fear region next season.

"Growers will be looking for a crop with a more rosy outlook," he said. "Soybean outlooks are more positive, and grain sorghum is more heat- and drought-tolerant. There's a growing market for that as animal feed."

Until the international markets turn around, Messick said, North Carolina cotton production will level off.

"It was a very nice harvest," he said. "But growers need a stronger outlook. Right now, that means less cotton and more in other crops."

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