Georgia's cotton industry has a problem, and it's costing farmers and the state money. But scientists and industry leaders say a new University of Georgia facility will help solve this problem before it gets worse.

A cotton micro-gin is being built on the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' Tifton, Ga., campus. It will be used primarily by the UGA Extension Cotton Team to help Georgia farmers improve their cotton fiber quality.

Poor fiber quality has been a costly problem for Georgia farmers for many years. Last year alone, it stripped $43 million in potential income from Georgia farmers, says Extension Cotton Economist Don Shurley. The production value of Georgia's 2002 crop was about $356 million.

Georgia farmers are penalized about five cents per pound of cotton due to fiber quality deductions, Shurley says.

“What we've got to do is find a way to keep this lost money in Georgia farmers' pockets,” Shurley says. “That money can help keep those communities that depend on cotton income in jobs and afloat.”

Farmers deliver their cotton to gins, usually in large modules that can weigh about 10,000 pounds. The primary purpose of a standard, high-capacity gin is to separate the cotton seed from the cotton lint. The lint is used to make shirts, jeans and other products. The seed is used to make oil and feed for livestock.

The UGA micro-gin has been designed to handle cotton just like a large gin, but on a smaller scale. It will allow scientists to more efficiently collect data from smaller, experimental cotton samples.

The samples will vary from a few pounds to 50 pounds, says Craig Bednarz, an Extension cotton physiologist. Bednarz chairs the micro-gin project committee.

The building will be about the size of a tall barn. The gin is designed to have plexiglass sides so visitors can see what actually happens to the fiber during the ginning process.

“This micro-gin will give researchers and producers the data and tools needed to develop better management practices and ways to handle cotton and address cotton problems specific to this area of the country,” Bednarz says.

The mission of this facility won't duplicate micro-gins in other parts of the United States, said Georgia Cotton Commission Executive Director Richey Seaton.

“This facility will support the entire spectrum of cotton research here in Georgia and in the Southeastern region,” Seaton says.

Cotton farmers are struggling through a period of low prices. The industry will have to find ways to reduce costs and save money to remain competitive in the world market. “But not at the expense of yields or fiber quality,” Seaton says.

The micro-gin will provide a facility for University of Georgia geneticists, economists, molecular biologists, plant breeders, physiologists, animal scientists and agronomists not only to help farmers, but also work closely with the textile industry and address its concerns.

The micro-gin will cost about $1.5 million. Funds have come from the Georgia General Assembly and federal sources, says David Bridges, assistant dean for the UGA Tifton campus.

Cotton fiber quality is graded in six categories: color, staple (length), micronaire (a measure of the fiber surface area), strength, uniformity and extraneous matter.

When Georgia farmers deliver their cotton to a gin, a sample is sent to a federal facility in Macon, Ga., to be graded. Cotton from the micro-gin will go through the same process.