It may not have been a joyous occasion, but the 2010 Beltwide Cotton Conference may go down as the year the industry finally began feeling better about its future.

After several years in which the National Cotton Council’s premier research and education meeting seemed more like a wake than a revival, participants appeared ready to shake off the blues.

Even those who came to New Orleans feeling a little down said they went away more optimistic than in previous years when losses in acreage and export market share were weighing on producers.

“Before I got here, I would have said our acreage would be the same or even down,” said Grady Coburn, a consultant from Cheneyville, La., two days into the meeting. “But I’m beginning to feel that we could be up this year.”

Coburn’s optimism was echoed by the Extension cotton specialists who attended a breakfast meeting held by Dow AgroSciences. The specialists, who represent most of the cotton-growing states, said their farmers could plant 15 percent to 20 percent more cotton in 2010.

According to Gary Adams, the National Cotton Council’s vice-president for economic and policy analysis, improvements in the general economy, exchange rates and cotton fundamentals have helped drive cotton futures prices 20 cents to 25 cents per pound higher since the beginning of harvest.

Global mill use, which has been in the doldrums because of the recession, could rise 3.4 million bales, helping reduce carryover stocks. If the world sees an expected decline of 9 million bales, that would be the largest since 2000.

Everything isn’t roses for cotton. “Consumer confidence is not very high, and unemployment is continuing to run at high levels,” Adams said. “This could put a lid on consumer spending to some degree, which could temper the growth in front of us.”

Part of the reason for the improved outlook may have been the tone of the Beltwide presentations themselves. Growers heard reports about promising new varieties and about insect management and weed control strategies that could help lower input costs that have had a stranglehold on them for several years.

One crop consultant, writing in his weekly newsletter, lauded the Cotton Council staff for “orchestrating a great conference in New Orleans.” (The same consultant had said a few years back that many growers had stopped attending Beltwide because of a lack of meaningful information.)

Producers also feel they can’t let cotton sink any lower. Participants in The Cotton Foundation’s High Cotton Awards breakfast were moved by the impassioned plea of Delta states winner Jimmy Hargett, who grew his 48th crop in 2009, to “do what we need to do to keep this cotton industry alive.”

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