Mills shunning contaminated cotton The room full of cotton growers was soberingly quiet. The message they had just received was clear. Yarn mills are finding too many contaminants in Southeastern cotton. At least one mill, Harriet & Henderson Yarns, has severely reduced its cotton purchases from this area because of excess contaminants.

With positive bale identification systems in place, the mills are rejecting and sending back bales of cotton they identify as contaminated. They are replacing this cotton with Mid-South cotton and increasingly with cotton produced overseas.

The mills are keeping detailed records of the cotton they receive from each gin. When it is obvious that more contaminated cotton is coming from a particular gin or a particular region, the mills stop buying and fill their cotton needs from other sources.

"We sometimes assume that contamination is a problem that has been around forever," says Dale Fite, vice president of fiber operations, Harriet & Henderson Yarns. "To some extent that is true. But we are finding more contaminants like plastic in the cotton we buy, especially in the east. We paid out our first quality claim to one of our customers in 1992. Once claims started, they rolled in in a big way. Since 1997 we have paid out nearly $600,000 in contamination claims. Contaminants are our company's most frequent, expensive and elusive quality complaint."

While Fite and other cotton purchasers are concerned about the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are having to pay out in quality claims, they are much more concerned about the damage such claims are doing to their reputations.

"Our most expensive penalty is lost business that cannot be recovered," he told farmers and ginners attending the 78th annual meeting of the Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative in Raleigh. "We have to do all we can to assure our customers that we are purchasing contamination-free cotton. Some of the policies our company has enacted over the past year have adversely affected our relationships with eastern growers."

Why is contamination becoming more of a problem in the east? What are the contaminants? Why do other areas and other countries seem to have less of a problem?

Fite acknowledges that some of the heavy contamination problems in the east over the last few years have come about because of hurricanes and tropical storms. Floods and high winds have blown down cotton, made grass and weed control difficult and have blown and washed other contaminants into fields. When growers were faced with low yielding cotton, many were not as careful as they could have been as they harvested their crop.

Maladjusted pickers compounded the problem of tangled and lodged cotton, significantly increasing grass and bark contaminants. But by far the most damaging and costly contaminants are not bark and grass.

"The most frequent contaminant we've found in eastern cotton is Wal-Mart bags; those blue plastic bags," says Fite. "Careless littering is putting a tremendous amount of contamination in cotton fields. I checked with the district attorney in Vance County, N.C., and the last time anyone was charged and fined $250 for littering was in 1972. This is creating a problem for farmers, for yarn spinners and for our customers."

Fite encouraged cotton growers to walk through cotton fields, particularly along roadsides, and remove plastic bags and other contaminants before they put a picker in the field. He also encouraged farmers and ginners to educate their workforce about the need to keep all foreign matter out of the cotton.

"We have to teach them why it is important not to use a torn module cover, not to cut a rope and leave it on the module, not to lay a cap or a sweatshirt in the wagon or on the module," Fite says.

He encourages the use of white tiedowns and module covers since white does not show up as bad in cotton as blue or green or some other color. He also strongly encourages using cotton ropes and covers, to keep foreign fibers out of the cotton.

Fite also points out the differences between the way foreign and U.S. gins and mills handle cotton. While HVI classing is accurate and efficient, it means, he says, that there are now fewer people looking at each lot of U.S. cotton.

A slide of a Pakistani mill opening room told quite a different story. Dozens of women were examining every pound of cotton before it went to the spinner. These women are paid about $3 per day.

"The companies we have sold our yarn to in the past have learned that they can buy yarns and fabrics from overseas," Fite says. "The foreign cotton is cheaper and the quality is favorable."

In an all out effort to slash contamination problems in their mills, Harriet & Henderson has installed contamination cleaners on two of their spinning frames. Fite says these machines are very expensive and only 75 percent effective. But they allow the company to monitor the contamination moving through their plants.

"Following last year's hurricanes, we removed al eastern cotton from our plant. The contamination level dropped by 50 percent," Fite says. "When we removed the Mid-South cotton and reintroduced eastern cotton, contamination doubled over the original level."

Since then the company has begun a research project with USDA, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the National Cotton Council to research sources of contamination and develop methods of prevention. They have donated 82 bales of cotton, at least three bales from different gins from every cotton producing state available. The cotton will be carefully examined by USDA specialists for any contaminants. "We will base our future buying patterns on the results of these tests," Fite says.

Fite says the USDA should consider developing some kind of gin certification program through which gins will institute methods of reducing contaminants in cotton.

"I'd like to know that the points from which I am buying cotton have done everything possible to prevent contamination," he says. "They can institute grower and worker contamination training. We need to figure out ways to identify and remove contaminants at the gin. This will take a lot of research and development, but it can be done. The USDA should provide grants to support this research so cotton buyers, domestic and international, will know the cotton they buy from U.S. growers is the least contaminated in the world."