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West Tennessee Ginner Richard Kelley Trying To Stay Competitive

EDITOR’S NOTE: West Tennessee producer/ginner Richard Kelley has observed many changes in the cotton industry for the past 40 years. In this interview with Cotton Farming, he discusses some of the major issues as harvest and ginning seasons approach.

What’s uppermost in your mind as ginning season approaches?
The thoughts that come to mind are “survival” and the future of cotton in our area. These are challenging times for cotton as we deal with weak demand, larger carryover and lower prices. That’s one leg of the stool. Then, we also have weed pressure and high input costs for the farmers. Let’s also not forget about the uncertainty of how the new farm law will work and the safety net farmers need to have.

What is your immediate thought on how the industry can survive this price environment?
Gins will survive if cotton survives. I tend to think that gins and gin operators can weather the storms and might even be more optimistic than producers. The infrastructure on the farm side is what concerns me. Plus, I am hopeful that the desire to grow cotton will still be there for farmers.

As a ginning leader for several years, how do you deal with the reality of consolidation and lower capacity?
Reduction in ginning operations because of consolidation concerns me quite a bit – because we are definitely losing a lot of gins. But we’ll still have plenty of capacity even though it will be fewer and larger gins. When cotton acres come back, the cotton will get ginned, but maybe not as quickly as some would like.

Richard Kelley

Richard Kelley

Why is it important never to let the Burlison Gin sit idle for any length of time?
You can’t just fire up a gin after shutting it down for a couple of years and expect it to be top notch. The technology continues to advance, and we can’t fall behind. We’ve spent more money recently on technology than we have in the last 10 years.

How have your cotton acres changed through the years?
It’s been a long roller coaster ride, and it all started with the 1985 Farm Bill. That set the stage for the next 30 years and has brought us to the present. Across the Belt, we have seen a rapid decline in cotton acreage from 2006 to the present – and possibly the lowest acreage since the mid-1970s. Personally, we’ve built our cotton acres to nearly 14,000 acres. But we have numerous issues that await us as we look ahead – including China’s huge reserves, weed pressure, competition from polyester and regaining markets.

The issue of contamination has been discussed a lot at ginner meetings this year. How serious is this problem?
I don’t think it’s a crime to talk about this problem. We need to be sensitive to all comments about contamination. We heard a timely report from Anthony Tancredi at the Southern Cotton Ginners summer meeting on this very topic. It concerns me when I hear complaints from mills about plastic being found in bales. We must stay proactive and not let anything affect the reputation of U.S. cotton. Through the years our hard work has carried us to the top.

When you were president of the National Cotton Ginners and Southern Cotton Ginners, what were those experiences like for you?
It certainly gave me a better perspective on how the industry is trying to deal with problems like contamination. I’m just thankful that we have the National Cotton Council and ginner organizations to help on so many fronts. It’s amazing how these organizations deal with issues before producers and ginners ever see them in Washington or in a committee meeting. These groups are problem solvers for us.

How would you describe your approach to ginning?
I am a hands-on ginner who has an engineering approach to ginning. I always like to go into the gin and find ways to be more efficient or fine-tune some aspect of our operation. I’d like to think that we’re helping the customer make more money by doing this.

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Does being a producer and ginner present any unusual opportunities during the course of a crop year?
Being able to control production, harvest and ginning gives me a chance to solve a lot of problems before the cotton ever reaches the gin. This kind of crossover involvement helps farming and ginning complement each other. Naturally, we have a bit more independence because we don’t gin as much cotton from other producers as we have in the past.

How important are ginning and farming to you?
Well, in the early days farming is what paid the bills. The ginning came out of necessity because we needed a place to gin the cotton. Today, my sons-in-law (Michael and Brad) help in both the farming and ginning operations. They wear a lot of hats, and I’m lucky to have them helping me. This is our life, and we’ve worked hard to get where we are today.

What are the advantages of having a family operation run the ginning and farming business?
When a farmer has two daughters, you never know what the opportunities will be for having a family operation. But Michael and Brad came on board when they married my daughters (Kerry and Leslie). In the early days, they rarely questioned my decisions. As we have grown in the business, I now find myself rarely questioning any of their decisions. It has turned into a wonderful situation.

Richard Kelley

Richard Kelley

When you look back on the growth of your farming and ginning operation, what thoughts do you have?
It used to be that there was hardly enough time to get everything done on the farm and at the gin. But after all of these years, my wife Charlotte and I find ourselves moving into a transition where we want to preserve what we have. We think that’s a natural progression. As I said, we’re very thankful for what we have.

If you have any kind of message for producers and ginners in the industry, what would it be?
My hope is that my fellow farmers and ginners have saved some money and invested well for the future. We are headed into a three or four-year period where we will be faced with a scenario crucial to U.S. cotton’s future. I keep repeating myself, but we must protect our infrastructure. We have seen up and down cycles in cotton, and now it’s important for us to be smarter in everything that we do.

Contact Richard Kelley at the Burlison Gin in Burlison, Tenn., at burlgin@bellsouth.net.