The West African nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Senagal export 4 million bales of cotton per year, and it is all produced mostly on farms of 10 acres or less.
That is a bit incomprehensible for a California cotton producer like John Pucheu of Tranquillity, Calif., who with his brother farms several thousand acres on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.
However, the chairman of the American Cotton Producers Committee saw it first hand recently as part of a U.S. delegation visiting Mali and meeting with government officials of several poor African nations to help the development of the cotton industries in those impoverished nations.
“We talked a lot about farming and just as difficult as I found it to understand their system, they could not quite comprehend the size of farms in the U.S.” said Pucheu.
But size became irrelevant as farmers from West Africa visited with the farmer from California.
“They grow a very good quality cotton there…just under SJV Acala quality,” said Pucheu. However one of the big issues those countries face in marketing cotton is bale contamination. “It is all hand-picked cotton and one of the big issues is contamination from the farm and the gin.” It is an issue faced and solved not that many years ago by SJV and other American growers and the West Africans were interested in how it was done.
Pucheu was there only two days and visited only a gin site, but it as obvious to him that “if they could address the contamination issue in the field and in the gin, they would improve their marketing efforts.”
The delegation was led by Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Butler and included other officials from the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and Pucheu as a representative of the National Cotton Council.
Pucheu said the ministers of agriculture were eager to learn how they could help their farmers to improve crops by more effective use of fertilizers, water management, biotechnology and integrated pest management. A follow-up conference in Mali in June 2005 will examine other technologies that can benefit West African cotton production and quality.
Additionally, under the Cochran and Borlaug Fellowship programs, USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service will invite West African officials and scientists to the United States to learn more about cotton classification procedures and soil science.
“The whole purpose of the trip was to improve dialogue between the nations of West Africa and the U.S. cotton industry,” said Pucheu.
That dialogue not only covered cotton production, but cotton politics. The U.S. farm program has been blamed for keeping world prices low and hurting developing West African nations in marketing their cotton.
While some West African nations are considered democratic, their cotton growing systems are all monopolistic, quasi government companies that control every aspect of the cotton industry from providing supplies, controlling ginning to furnishing credit.
“Growers are even told when to spray for insects by the government,” said Pucheu.
These monopolies are finding themselves in an economic bind because they set the price growers will receive for their cotton when it is planted. If the world price goes down, the governments find themselves owing millions they did not make on the cotton. “There are 11 million people in Mali alone and about a third are directly tied to the cotton industry. Failing to pay what the government has promised to pay affects a huge segment of the population,” said the SJV cotton producer. The situation is similar in other undeveloped nations as well.
“We also spent time explaining to them that some of the problems with world cotton prices stem from big increases in production from China and Brazil,” said Pucheu. “We also explained that U.S. acreage had been fairly constant over the past decade and the big crop we had in 2004 was due not to more acreage, but big yields as a result of perfect growing weather.”
There is interest among West African growers and agricultural ministers to improve the growing system and lower costs and make West Africa more competitive. Biotech cotton has been successful in South Africa and there is a growing interest in biotech and integrated pest management in West Africa, said the California cotton producer.
“A lot of their pesticides are applied with hand sprayers and biotech and IPM are big safety issues with the ministers of agriculture,” said Pucheu. “Bt cotton that would reduce the amount of pesticides used would be a major step forward in safety.”
Pucheu said the trip was a goodwill mission and not one just to argue the points of both West African and U.S. cotton growing and marketing systems.
“I think it was very much worth my time. Whenever you can have a face to face meeting over things that are important to cotton growers wherever they are — in West Africa or California — it is worth the effort.”
Pucheu said he expects the U.S. to continue to reach out to these nations to keep the dialogue going.