The 2017 season was productive and profitable for South Carolina cotton growers and all indicators point to an even better 2018.

More than 500 growers, exhibitors, vendors and agriculture experts attended the South Carolina Cotton Growers' Annual Meeting at the Santee Conference Center on Jan. 23 to celebrate the successful season and share information for the upcoming season. 

“South Carolina growers planted 250,000 aces in 2017, up by 60,000 from 2016,” said Dr. Nathan Smith, professor and extension economist with Clemson University. Moreover, authorities estimate the state’s average yield at 910 pounds per acre, which was also significantly better than 2016, he said.

Cotton prices finished stronger in 2017 than in recent years as well, averaging around 68 cents a pound. That represented a significant improvement over some recent years, when farmers struggled to break even on their cotton crops.

Experts attributed much of the increase in production to favorable weather conditions. Heavy rains in the spring provided a superb moisture base in the soil. Timely rains in the heart of the summer supported strong growth, while precipitation remained limited enough at harvest time so as not to interfere with growers gathering their crops.

While demand for cotton remained constant in the United States, overseas demand for high quality cotton continued to strengthen. China remains a leading importer of U.S. cotton. India reportedly cancelled several export contracts and was using more of the cotton produced there for domestic purposes. Mexico remains a top five importer of U.S. cotton.

Growers also continue to make significant strides in controlling pests. Perhaps the biggest success story involves the eradication of boll weevils, once the scourge of cotton production in the south.

“We have had a very successful eradication program,” said Drake Perrow, producer and consultant from Cameron. Perrow also serves as chairman of the South Carolina Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. “We have not seen any boll weevils in this state or in any other state except Texas.”

“This program goes back to the 1970s, and we spent a lot of money back in the 1970s to get rid of this trouble,” he said.

Progress in combating boll worms and thrips continues as well, though much work remains to be done in those areas. Thrips are small flying insects that bore holes in plants and then suck out essential materials for nutrition, killing the plant in the process.

Smith and other economists expect positive growing trends to continue in 2018, as long as weather again proves favorable. International demand should continue to grow due to a variety of reasons. For example, the world’s ever-expanding population will continue to need more cotton products. Policy changes in China, one of the biggest importers of U.S. cotton, will create a bigger demand as well.

China stockpiled cotton a number of years, eventually building up a stockpile of more than 80 million surplus bales, even though they use approximately 15 million more bales than their country produces. China decided to auction off some of its surplus two years ago. Since then, it has reduced the excess supply it has in storage to around 45 million bales. The country plans to auction off another 10-15 million bales this year.

This reduction, combined with the increasing amount of cotton China needs for its textile operations, will result in more imports from the U.S. in the not-too-distant future. In fact, U.S. cotton futures for December 2018 currently point to cotton prices coming in around 25 cents a pound.

New varieties of cotton and more advancements in pest control will lead to increased U.S. production as well. The major agricultural research companies continue working to develop strains of cotton with longer and stronger fibers. Representatives of Bayer CropScience, Americot, Monsanto and Dow AgriScience informed those at the meeting in Santee about new cotton varieties for the Southeast.

New innovations in technology will improve cotton production techniques too. The use of drones will continue to expand for field mapping and crop monitoring. Researchers are looking into ways of using electrostatic charges to reduce plastic contamination in cotton mills. Researchers are even working on robots that will monitor crops from close range and, eventually, even handle some of the harvesting chores.

Dr. Joe Maja of Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville demonstrated a robot called CHAP (short for Computer Harvesting Autonomous Prototype) at the Santee Conference Center.

The South Carolina Department of Agriculture continues looking for opportunities to strengthen the market for cotton and other agricultural commodities produced in the state.

“We want dollars to invest in rural South Carolina,” S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers of Bowman said. His department has a vision of becoming “the department of commerce for rural South Carolina,” Weathers said.

“We said, 'Put money in the department (of agriculture), and we’ll find places where we think investments are needed in rural South Carolina so we can bring more marketing opportunities for farmers,” he told the group.

Cotton growers and researchers face many other challenges.

“As far as the major challenges that Congress is facing in trying to get a new farm bill in place, the biggest one is the budget,” said Reece Langley, vice president of the Washington, D.C., operations of the National Cotton Council. “How much funding is going to be available for the new farm bill and how to do the things that we need to be done. It’s pretty apparent that there will not be any new budget resources provided by Congress. So, the ag communities have to figure out how to take the funding that is currently there in the market and apportion it in a way that tries to address all the needs.

"Two major needs exist. One, as you’re all well aware, is trying to enhance cotton policy to provide an effective safety net.”

The use of South Carolina’s water resources is also becoming a more volatile issue as irrigation systems come into more widespread use. To prepare for the inevitable controversies over water that will take place in the state legislature, officials will launch an in depth research initiative in 2018. County extension agents will soon begin visiting every farm in the Palmetto State to gauge how much water they use for irrigation and determine what type of irrigation systems they use. The information they gather will play a vital role in formulating future water policy.

Plastic contamination is another growing concern for U.S. cotton growers. This contamination occurs when plastic fibers get intermingled with cotton fibers during harvesting or ginning, only to be identified when the ginned cotton reaches textile mills. Its presence can adversely affect the quality of the cotton. There have even been cases of shipments being rejected because they contain excessively high percentages of plastic fibers.

The plastic that contaminates cotton comes from a variety of sources. The bright yellow or other plastic used to wrap newly harvested cotton is one of the most obvious sources. But plastic also enters the production chain through other sources, such as leftover plastic mulches left in soil previously used to grow vegetables. Waste plastic from grocery bags and other trash that blows into fields also gets caught up in harvesters to contribute to the problem.

“We’ve always had contamination,” said Dr. Ed Barnes, research director for Cotton Incorporated, based in Cary, North Carolina. “It’s always been a challenge, but it’s really been a marketing advantage for U.S. cotton.”

“We have a reputation for low contamination, and we get a premium for that,” Barnes said. “We don’t want to give it up. So it’s something we want to address.”

To learn more about cotton production in South Carolina in 2017, as well as the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the state’s cotton growers and consumers, visit: the South Carolina Cotton Board at www.sccotton.com.

Contact the writer: gwh903@yahoo.com.

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