EDITOR’S NOTE: Kelli Merritt is a producer, broker and merchant based in Lamesa, Texas. She has traveled numerous times to important U.S. export markets in Asia on behalf of FiberMax cotton and is a frequent contributor to Cotton Farming. In this report, she discusses how U.S. cotton quality has improved during the past 10 years.
For an outsider, much of the true value of the land in West Texas is hidden. Visitors often comment about the awesome view from the Caprock, spectacular sunsets or stunning star displays at night. It’s not the first thing you see that tells the real story of why our families chose to develop these lands not so long ago.
In the early days, farmers loved the High Plains simply because quality land was available at a good price. With few trees, we could plow longer rows, make cotton for less money and sell it with surety at the day’s end. Our hot, dry climate meant fewer insect problems, and the relatively recent cultivation of the land meant using little or no fertilizer.
In comparable terms, anybody willing to work long, hard hours and not be overcome by little rainfall could make money in those fledgling days.
Quality didn’t have the impact it does today. With the sole use of domestic mills and high local demand for non-wovens, my dad’s cotton was readily converted into profits despite the fact that it had some of the shortest staple on the market.
Only in the last 10 years has West Texas entered the world market as a producer of premium quality cotton. That, too, was due to one of the hidden wonders of our land. As a near match for the arid Australian climate where FiberMax was developed, we quickly produced unprecedented staple lengths. Texas has surprised the world with longer staple cotton, but, at the same time, mills are challenging us to address the ongoing concerns of short fibers and neps because most of our cotton still is, and probably always will be, stripper harvested.
But, really, why should we keep improving? Enough is enough and where is the benefit? That’s the question I’m asked at conferences across the country.
What’s at stake is our choice of becoming a first tier supplier or settling as a residual supplier. And the importance of becoming a first tier supplier is that it is the intermediate step to consistency of demand because we offer something special that mills cannot buy anywhere else. That’s one of those hidden issues that really can impact our long-term survival.
Quality Can Deliver Rewards
When the mills see that Texas can consistently supply premium quality cotton, and that we are addressing the remaining quality issues, they will choose us first.
How did this all start? Looking at the USDA Classing Office numbers, our average staple length did not go over an inch and stay there until 1986. The next 15 years saw moderate increases to a staple length of 33.17 – nothing to start popping our suspenders about. But in the first five years of the 21st century, West Texas cotton averaged almost a 34 staple.
In the past five years, after reaching 1.11 inches and even above, (that’s over 35 staple) we have progressed from being producers of cotton for mattress stuffing to having cotton that potentially we could put our name on for a premium branded shirt. If we will complete the quality quest, we can carve our spot in the market in much the same way that cotton from the San Joaquin Valley of California has for years.
When mills go the direction of cheap foreign growth cotton, the United States becomes a residual supplier. To avoid this disadvantage, we need to consider under what circumstances it makes good financial sense to pick a crop rather than to strip it.
Impact Of Ginning
Another quality variable is the ginning process. Is it too farfetched to think that we in West Texas could incorporate roller ginning for at least some of our cotton? We could begin by leaving out some of the lint cleaning process or stick machines on picked cotton – the standard practice in areas all over the country except for Texas. If we are willing, we can develop a specialty market for the best of our U.S. Cotton.
The United States is the only country that classes each and every bale and keeps a national record of it. It’s time to use the standards we have lived by to our advantage. We can build on our inherent advantages from classification and less contamination through better marketing.
When mills are convinced they can get a reliable supply of a consistently superior product, they will be more inclined to offer a premium price to secure our cotton. As farmers, we are nothing if not tenacious. Our journey must be taken in steps.
Obtainable Future Goals
There might be nostalgia for the days when King Cotton – of any quality – meant a grand paycheck. There’s great opportunity for strategic development and growth with the advent of cotton improvements. Moving forward is a step towards securing a future. The answer is real and tangible, even if it’s not obvious – just like the beauty of the land we cultivate. Quality matters and developing our regional cotton with deliberate steps will make a difference for us, for our children and for our children’s children.
Contact Kelli Merritt at (806) 497-6423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why Has U.S. Cotton Quality Improved In The Past Decade?
• Improvement in cotton breeding.
• Better staple and strength.
• Increase in picker cotton varieties.
• Understanding of what mills want.
• Increase in U.S. cotton exports.