Southeastern cotton producers probably have grown tired by now of continuously being beaten over the head with the quality issue. It's a legitimate issue, no doubt, but growers in this part of the country can be forgiven if they've felt a bit picked on during the past year or so. This is especially true for Georgia growers, who became the official “whipping boys” for poor quality cotton. Whether Georgia's cotton quality was any worse than that in other parts of the country could be a matter for debate, but the spotlight was placed on the state when a couple of prominent cotton merchants publicly slammed the quality of Georgia's cotton.

Some of the pressure was eased this past fall as harvest began, and Georgia's quality numbers showed an improvement over previous years. But growers should be warned that this is by no means the end of the quality issue. In fact, it's probably just the beginning.

The quality issue was front and center at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, with representatives from all facets of the industry speaking during the general session about what can be done at each stage — planting, growing, harvesting and ginning — to improve the quality of cotton.

University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist Steve M. Brown, who has been at the center of the storm, said during a Beltwide panel discussion that growers can't ignore the signals from buyers that fiber quality will play a bigger role in the size of their paychecks. Brown says the idea that farmers can grow higher quality fiber and get paid for it has generated “a lot of discussion and we get a lot of mixed signals. It's coming.”

But he fears that a shifted emphasis on quality could hurt farmers in Georgia and other parts of the Southeast. “We've heard a lot of negative comments about our quality, especially short fiber. And that's an issue all over the Southeast, except in north Alabama. We have a reputation for producing base or commodity cotton,” he says. Brown is concerned that the reputation may prevent Georgia and Southeastern growers from “being paid for (quality cotton) even when we produce better cotton. Other areas in the Belt are growing quality cotton and getting paid for it,” he says. “Fiber quality in Georgia and across the Cotton Belt is now pretty good. Staple and strength are good, but the industry remains concerned about the Southeast and short fiber.”

A 31-3-35 and better has become a standard, says Brown, and that benchmark becomes even more important with two-thirds to three-fourths of the U.S. cotton crop sold as export.

Brown says mills “rant and rave about the seed companies not developing varieties with better quality characteristics. But there is no quick fix. It takes eight to 10 years to develop a variety. And seed companies have made improvements.”

Growers, he says, can take some of the responsibility for producing better cotton. Variety is the first step, he adds. But he recommends going beyond research plot evaluations to judge cotton fiber quality. “Plots are hand harvested and hand ginned, so that cotton does not go through the same stresses that commercial cotton does. Some of the quality characteristics will be over-estimated.”

He recommends that growers track modules, identified by variety, through the gin and have the ginner provide quality ratings for those modules. “That's the best real world data you can get. See where those varieties come from and compare them to other fields or to a neighbor's field.”

We're not where we want to be with varieties yet, says Brown, but we're getting there. Other factors in the hands of farmers, such as timely harvest and stink bug control, also can preserve cotton quality, he says.

Brown says the quality issue is coming, and that farmers will have to change. “Unfortunately, farmers often don't change until they get hurt economically.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com