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Can We Learn From History?

Are there things about history that can help us today? Or is it better to stay in the present and concentrate only on the future? I ask myself those questions a lot these days as the U.S. cotton industry tries to chart a path toward better prices, increased acreage and more demand in global markets.

Not surprisingly, I was thumbing through some old issues of Cotton Farming recently and came across the January 2003 issue, and it made me think about the environment we were in 12 years ago. On the cover is a photo of Memphis merchant Billy Dunavant, manufacturer Duke Kimbrell of Parkdale Mills and Mississippi producer Kenneth Hood. They were standing in front of the National Cotton Council offices in Memphis, and the theme of that issue was “Industry Unity.”

I can vividly recall the day that we took that photo and the ensuing roundtable interview that occurred inside the NCC’s offices. We were lucky to bring together three industry giants that day. The weather cooperated and allowed us to take the photo outside the iconic NCC building in midtown Memphis. After taking numerous shots, we moved inside for a candid, free-wheeling conversation about various issues confronting the industry that year.

I won’t recycle the entire conversation we had. But, it is interesting how these three men exuded a positive but candid view of issues that we are all too familiar with today. Even though the U.S. textile manufacturing sector hadn’t shrunk to today’s levels, there was concern about this issue and many others in 2003.

The question of fiber quality was discussed and the impact that China was having on the U.S. industry. We also talked about how each of the seven segments was working better together as the industry tried to reach consensus on key issues. In retrospect, many of the issues the industry was grappling with in 2003 are just as relevant today. China continues to be a powerful influence, and there obviously has never been a more important time for unity as U.S. cotton tries to regain demand in key global markets.

During the interview, Kimbrell was asked about the future of the U.S. textile industry, and he predicted that it wouldn’t disappear but someday be smaller than it was in 2003. That prediction certainly came true. No, the United States isn’t consuming 11 million bales each year as it did in 1998, but Kimbrell was hopeful that a 7 million-bale mark would be acceptable. As we know today, the figure stands between 3.5 million and 4 million bales, but there have been recent increases in consumption that give the U.S. textile industry some hope for the future.

We also talked about the World Trade Organization, fiber quality, Farm Bills and many other issues. I wonder what these leaders would think today as U.S. cotton strives to regain lost market share and survive in this volatile global market. You could tell by their answers in 2003 that they knew a major transition was about to occur for U.S. textile mills. They were bracing themselves for the transition, but simultaneously they were hoping that an orderly transition would occur to prevent total chaos in the market.

What made this conversation so productive is that all three men had known each other for many years and felt very comfortable talking about issues that affected every segment. Each expressed optimism about U.S. cotton’s future. Yes, China was a concern that made everyone apprehensive. Yes, it would be a struggle to keep a strong textile manufacturing sector thriving in the United Sates. Yes, it would be critical to maintain dialogue among all of the industry’s seven segments.

Looking back on that day makes me realize that we continue to need industry giants like Billy Dunavant, Duke Kimbrell and Kenneth Hood if the U.S. cotton industry hopes to solve some of its problems today. And I suppose it also means that we can learn from the past if we’re looking to gain perspective on what is happening today. Sadly, Duke Kimbrell passed away a few years ago, and his friends and industry friends miss him a lot. Billy Dunavant has retired to a ranch in Montana, and I don’t see him as much as I did in those early days. I run into Kenneth Hood regularly at events such as the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show and Beltwide Cotton Conferences.

Every time I see Billy or Kenneth, it reminds me of all the times that I have spent with both of them. And it makes me appreciate that memorable day back in 2003. As for Duke Kimbrell, he sent me a handwritten note after the January 2003 issue was published. Just like a Southern gentleman, he thanked me for the chance to be on the cover of the magazine. I kept that letter in my desk for a long time and would read it many times through the years. I went through my desk today and can’t find it anywhere. Oh well, the letter may be gone, but I can recall verbatim the words that were written.

My industry scrapbook of memories is a big one, but one of the best was the day I spent time with these three men. They won’t be forgotten. And I think all of us can learn important lessons by what was discussed 12 years ago.