We live in a dynamic world today, a world of change, and it has always been the road to progress and will always be that way. Change is a result of the literal combination of experience, wisdom and research. Thus, cotton’s biggest and brightest days are in front of us.
With acreage rebounding this season and expected to remain stable to slightly higher in the coming four years, cotton will not abdicate its throne. Sure, the King has had his crown tarnished, and there are even a couple of deep scratches in it. Too, chemical fibers will continue to erode world per capita demand, but population and income growth will boost the total demand far in excess of any loss from the demand for chemical fibers.
To maintain pace with a growing world demand, either yields must increase or the land area devoted to cotton must increase. Yield increases will lead the way to higher production. However, from time to time acreage adjustments will be the primary determinant of production.
The good ole days are in front of us, not behind us. World cotton demand will expand. Acreage will ebb and flow with technology as well as with the cyclical nature of crop price ratios.
There was nothing unique about the recent surge in grain and oilseed prices relative to cotton. The early 1970s were replete with forecasts that cotton would never again be grown in the Rolling Plains of Texas and Oklahoma. Wheat climbed to $6-7 dollars a bushel, and within five years it fell below $3 in some locations. Today, there aren’t many alternatives for much of the Rolling Plains.
What most nostalgically call the good ole days would better be identified as simply “the old hard times.” Harness the mule, shuck the mule’s corn, child labor to hand pick the cotton and dispense DDT by hand. Were those the “good ole days?” I think not. They represented hard times.
Child labor problems continue to plague the international cotton industry. Uzbek children are forced by the government to hand pick cotton. So, do you want to go back to the “good ole days?” That is, does anyone wish to go back to the days of high government support coupled with the requirement of sleeping with the government each and every night, back to 480-pound yields, $300 production costs, hand picking and gins that run at two bales per hour?
When my cotton career began in the 1960s, Mississippi had 463 active cotton gins. Today, just slightly more than 10 percent of that number are active. True, the few that are left have a greater ginning capacity than the entire 463 did in the 1960s. Change is cotton’s road to progress.
With respect to child labor, one Memphis-based merchandising group is setting the stage to offer “certified free of child labor.” Such a program would highlight the already desirable U.S cotton.
The labor-intensive cotton industry of the 1960s has given way to the very capital-intensive industry of the 2000s. Technology will continue to flow in the form of new equipment and higher yielding seed varieties.
Yet, there is another major change that will continue to evolve. Over time, direct payments to cotton producers have shrunk from 100 percent to only 85 percent of their base acreage. Within five years – probably less – direct payments are likely to be reduced to only 70 percent of a producer’s respective base. Are you ready for that? The discussion is active in Washington, and Congress has made the calculations.
As bad as this change appears, there will likely be good to come from it. I do not see the good, but then, we will see dollar cotton again and most don’t believe that. Dollar cotton is on the horizon, but not for this year.
– Dr. O.A. Cleveland, Professor Emeritus
Mississippi State University