I grew up in an era in which cotton has gone from king to court jester, back to king — well you know the history. Cotton acreage has come and gone for well over a century, dented from time to time by boll weevils, bollworms and now hard to handle pigweed.
I also grew up in a cotton mill town. We had more cotton mills (six) in a 10 mile stretch of U.S. Highway 29 than we had traffic lights (two). In their heyday, the six textile mills all ran six days a week, 24 hours a day.
In the 1960s and 1970s Southern textile mills inhaled the nation’s cotton crop — many years U.S. growers simply couldn’t keep up. Cotton was truly king, both in rural areas of the Southeast and in the textile towns that dotted the map from southern Virginia to the Florida Panhandle.
Now, none of those six cotton mills that I grew up with are running — none. Sadly, the largest of those plants is now being gutted for the pine wood flooring on the inside and the brick on the outside.
Another of those mills is scheduled to be converted into a shopping mall, complete with loft apartments that overlook the river. So far, the city that now owns the mill has had few takers — either businesses or residents.
Back then the Southern textile industry used 100 percent of the Southeast cotton crop and often all the cotton that could be grown in Texas and other widely scattered cotton producing locales.
Now, U.S. textiles use less than a quarter of the cotton grown in the U.S. — and domestic usage continues a steady descent that seems destined to oblivion in the coming decade. China alone uses much more of our cotton than we do. China, by far our best customer for U.S. grown cotton, now grows more cotton that we do. India now also grows more cotton than we do and has become a major export rival.
As textile and apparel trade liberalized over the last few years, production shifted to countries with lower wages, and apparel imports increased in the United States. As a result, many U.S. textile and apparel plants closed. Some firms went out of business and others relocated production overseas. The United States lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs between 1994-2005.
I have a friend whose family worked in the textile mills in our hometown. He went to college to learn more about the science of textiles. He’s still in the textile business — in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands.
All that said, don’t cry too many tears for the cotton industry or cotton growers in the United States of America. They are doing just fine.
Cotton acreage now ebbs and flows along with the demand created by foreign mills. Despite these up and down prices that regularly draw a fare share of cussin’ and discussin’ at rural diners and eateries across the Cotton Belt, the industry remains strong because demand for cotton products remains strong. Over 80 percent of all the natural fibers used and over a third of all fibers used for the clothes we wear comes from cotton.
The infrastructure for cotton is good — primarily because it’s anchored by good people.
Every commodity with which I work has wonderful people, so noting those who drive the cotton industry is by no means belittling to the folks who promote corn, soybeans, peanuts and small grain.
For example, if I wanted to know how much cotton was grown in a particular county in Georgia in 2004, an e-mail to Brad Robb at the U.S. Cotton Board or Marjorie Walker or Cotton Nelson at the National Cotton Council — yes Cotton is his real name — would get me the answer in a matter of minutes, probably in triplicate.
Suffice to say, if a humble scribe like me could get that kind of information, political leaders, industry leaders, financial leaders, etc. could know in a matter of minutes what they need to know about cotton. As Cotton Incorporated ads suggest, cotton is the fabric of our lives and the infrastructure of the cotton industry is what makes that fabric strong.
The strength of cotton’s infrastructure goes well beyond those who are paid to promote it. The growers are the backbone of the cotton industry and despite the ups and downs in cotton prices, growers remain dedicated to cotton in the Southeast.
No, if you want to shed a tear over cotton, cry for towns like Mauldin, S.C., Tallassee, Ala. and Ahoskie, N.C. Once thriving rural communities, fueled by cotton and the textiles they produced, hundreds of such communities in the Southeast now lie decimated and in desperate need of economic revitalization.
In a three-year stretch from 2002-2005, Tallassee Mills went through its death throws and finally closed it’s doors. In a town of 4,562 people, 1,235 worked in the cotton mill. The county in which I grew up — remember those six cotton mills that closed down — now has the highest unemployment of any of Alabama’s 67 counties.
I don’t have the magic bullet to fix the rural Southeast cotton mill towns devastated by the demise of the textile industry.
I do have a suggestion for those who have a pang of sympathy for that way of Southern life. Buy more cotton products. And, when you hear well-intentioned politicos talking about the burdensome cost on taxpayers who pay the tab for cotton subsidies, give ‘em half a peace sign and cast your vote another way. They don’t have the facts, though such cotton facts are available from a number of sources.
The textile mills of the Southeast aren’t coming back — not in our lifetime. Don’t compound that rural economic tragedy by casting out cotton gins and cotton farmers who are the lifeline of many, many more rural communities than those which have been devastated by the loss of cotton mills.
When you look aghast at all the cotton clothes that now sell for much less than they did a decade ago, don’t be saddened that they are now made in Bangladesh or Guatemala, be glad that many of these garments are made from cotton grown in the USA.