Ignoring Georgia's cotton quality problem is like ignoring the big pink elephant in your living room — it's not going away just because you refuse to acknowledge it, says Paul Wigley, Extension coordinator in southwest Georgia's Calhoun County.

Wigley and Calhoun County Extension coordinator Brian Cresswell recently hosted a cotton quality meeting, field day and defoliation clinic to help begin a dialogue among growers and industry representatives about possible solutions to the state's current quality dilemma.

“I don't believe it's all the seed companies' fault, and I don't believe it's all the growers' fault,” says Wigley. “It's also not all the fault of the ginners or of the people in the textile industry. But I believe we probably all could work together to help eliminate the problem. If we don't talk about it, it isn't going away.”

At least four major U.S. textile mills have indicated their intent either not to purchase 2004 cotton from Georgia or to do so only with higher than normal quality standards.

“There's no doubt about it, we do have a reputation for bad quality fiber, and some mills don't want to buy our cotton,” says Craig Bednarz, University of Georgia plant physiologist. “I don't know how many bales those four or five mills represent, but they're very large mills, and we think they're in the 2 to 3-million bale range. And that's a market in which we can't participate simply because the cotton was grown in Georgia.”

Georgia growers need to start thinking of ways to work around their peanut harvest, says Bednarz. “If that means looking at earlier-season varieties — at least under irrigation — maybe that would help us get out some of our cotton before we harvest peanuts,” he says.

One thing is for certain, he adds, Georgia growers can't let their cotton sit in the field and weather while they pick their peanuts.

Rumblings about Georgia's cotton quality problems first were heard back in the year 2000, when National Textiles stated that they would not be buying Georgia cotton, says Jimmy Webb, a Calhoun County producer and Georgia representative on the National Cotton Council and the Georgia Cotton Commission.

“We didn't want it to become public at that time, so we started working on this thing privately. We spent $1 million in your research funds on breeding. It takes a long time to get a variety, but we're working that way. We've also spent about $2.5 million getting the microgin in Tifton up and running. We're now ready to put it to work and find out what's going on with our quality,” says Webb.

The issue “exploded” this past June, he says, when prominent cotton merchant Billy Dunavant criticized Georgia cotton at a conference in South Carolina. “He worked pretty hard on us. We didn't want to be the topic of conversation at that meeting, but that's what happened,” says Webb.

Cotton Incorporated, the National Cotton Council and the Georgia Cotton Commission have formed a group, he says, and this group is working on Georgia's fiber quality problem.

“We don't know exactly what the problem is, but we as producers all will be affected by it. I have friends in the cotton industry from Arizona. About 10 years ago, some of their cotton was branded as ‘sticky,’ and you still think about sticky cotton whenever you think of Arizona. We cannot let this happen.”

Many producers in the southwest corner of Georgia tend to have a “peanut mentality,” says Wigley. “Over the past 50 to 60 years, peanuts paid for more farms than anything we've ever grown down here. There's no doubt about that. When it came time to dig and pick peanuts, everything else was pushed to the side.”

Now, with the threat of tomato spotted wilt virus, peanut planting has been pushed back by a full 30 days, he adds. “We have to start trying to make some adjustments either in the varieties of cotton we grow, the length of our season, or in some of our harvest strategies. We have to come up with something to help this situation.”

Wigley says that whenever a grower comes into his office to look at university variety data, he's going to ask two questions. “The first question is what does the variety yield? The second question is how long will it stay in the burr, or how long will it wait? Because we still think in terms of leaving it out there until we get our peanuts in. No one ever asks which variety has the highest quality characteristics,” says the county agent.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com