The cotton industry has reason for optimism as producers begin the 2019 planting season.
Cotton is back in the farm bill. The White House hints at some movement on the China trade standoff. New efforts to enhance the reputation of U.S. cotton as the most sustainable in the world are in the works. Cotton’s place as a more environmentally friendly fabric than synthetics is gaining some traction. And efforts are under way to address plastic contamination in baled cotton.
A few challenges remain, however, says Gary Adams, president and CEO, National Cotton Council, Memphis.
Relief for farmers hit by natural disasters has not been approved and cotton will have work to do to regain markets lost to China’s retaliatory tariffs, Adams said in a wide-ranging interview with Delta Farm Press.
He says a new initiative, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, set to begin as a pilot program this summer, is designed to show brands and retailers that U.S. cotton farmers are committed to sustainable practices.
“We believe U.S. cotton is the most sustainable in the world,” Adams says, “but some brands and retailers say no standard exists to measure that.” The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol will provide data to authenticate sustainability.
“We will initiate the program this summer with a limited number of farmers,” Adams adds, “to give us a chance to work out any problems before we launch it more broadly in 2020.”
Farmers selected to participate in the Protocol will fill out a questionnaire and agree to use data tools associated with the Field to Market stewardship program, to authenticate it.
The questionnaire, consisting of more than 100 questions, offers insight into the many conservation and best management practices routinely incorporated on U.S. cotton farms. The process also will show continuous improvement in a farm’s sustainability.
“This also provides a way for cotton farmers to incorporate the Council’s 10-year key environmental initiatives,” Adams says. Those goals include issues like water use, greenhouse gas reductions, soil conservation, and other stewardships practices.
“The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a way to help achieve those key environmental initiatives.
“The majority of cotton farmers are already doing most of the practices included on the questionnaire,” Adams says. Questions may be broken into four parts asking farmers if they currently use a specific practice on their entire acreage, on some acres, no acres at this time but will consider it in the future or if it’s something that is not applicable to their operation.
“Using cover crops is one example,” Adams explains. “Others include strip till, irrigation system efficiency practices, using an agronomist to aid in management decisions, enrolling in the working lands conservation programs or relying on field trial data to select varieties.
Not every question will be relevant to every farmer, Adams says. Dryland farmers, for instance, likely will not use soil moisture monitors.
The Protocol offers participants opportunities to learn, too. Adams says the individual information is confidential, but as more farmers are added, and responses are analyzed, sharing some of that information with participants may offer insights into possible production changes.
“The point,” Adams says, “is that we do not want any brand or retailer to exclude U.S. cotton because of sustainability issues. We want to meet all their sourcing needs, including sustainability.”
He adds that some brands and retailers want product traceability. “The question is how do we do that. The cotton supply chain doesn’t easily lend itself to traceability.”
He explains that cotton fiber moves so much during processing that tracing a particular garment back through the multiple stages and often through several countries, poses significant challenges.
Contamination, he says, is another challenge, but one that the industry seems to be “making progress on. Through the 2018 harvest and ginning season, we see progress showing up in the classing offices and in the industry.
“Awareness,” he adds, “is a big factor in improvements as growers and ginners look at ways to keep plastic out of cotton bales.”
He says ongoing research at USDA cotton gin labs is testing cameras that detect plastic at the gin and for ways to remove it. Some ginners, he adds, are doing some of that on their own, installing cameras on gin stands.
Growers and ginners also are applying best management practices to reduce the likelihood of plastic coming in. Care in the field to prevent stalks from puncturing the bale wrap and pushing small bits of plastic into the round bale, and more care as cotton moves into the gin, help reduce contamination.
“Contamination will quickly hurt the reputation of U.S. cotton if we don’t get ahead of it,” Adams says.
He says the Council feels like cotton “is in a pretty good spot” with the farm bill passed last December. “We’re waiting on the final rule and feedback from USDA on how they plan to implement and interpret what Congress approved.
“The heavy lifting for cotton was done in the 2018 budget bill that put seed cotton back in the program.”
He says a few things in the 2019 bill will be different. He anticipates the final rule will be released soon and general signup will begin in September 2019.
Adams is not so optimistic about the timing of relief for cotton farmers damaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters. “I have no good news on disaster relief,” he says. “But the last feedback we got from the White House is that something might happen when Congress gets back from its two-week break, which just started. Funding for Puerto Rico is the hang-up. We hope to get something after the recess.”
He also hopes to see movement on the China trade issue soon. He says some positive signs have come from the White House recently. “But there is still work to be done. We hope within the next four weeks, they (China and the U.S.) can schedule a summit.” A summit, he says, will indicate movement toward resolution.
Something needs to move. Before the tariffs, U.S. owned 45 percent of China’s cotton imports. That has dropped to 11 percent with Australia and Brazil filling most of the gap.
Australia’s cotton exports to China have been somewhat limited, Adams says, because of production issues. Brazil has been the biggest beneficiary. “Brazil is close to harvest now, and they appear to have another big crop.”
Adams says when a China trade deal is finally inked, Brazil likely will remain a competitor for that market. “We will do all we can to take as much back as we can,” he adds. But some Chinese mills are reluctant to switch suppliers once they are online.
He says quality will be an advantage for U.S. cotton. “Our cotton is better than Brazilian cotton.” He also notes that Brazil will need to make a long-term commitment to improve infrastructure — roads and ports — to become more competitive in the cotton market.
“We need to get the China trade issue resolved before the 2019 crop comes in,” Adams says. From all indications, the U.S. will produce another big crop. Soil moisture going into planting season is favorable. Conditions in the Southwest are more promising than last year.
A final positive note, Adams says, is consumer preference for cotton. He says on a recent trip to London he noticed more 100 percent cotton products in department stores — home goods such as sheets. “And I saw a lot of denim.”
He adds that cotton’s sustainability message, versus synthetics, resonates with consumers. Micro-fibers from polyester are found in waterways across the globe. “They don’t biodegrade,” Adams says. “Cotton is making inroads.”