Don Cameron award
Ted Sheely, left, Supima chairman, recognized Don Cameron, center, for his 15 years of service on the Supima board, including a term as chairman. At right is Supima Executive Vice-President Marc Lewkowitz.

American Pima cotton world grows, despite challenges

American Pima cotton has evolved from a textile option to a global standard for premium cotton fiber

American Pima cotton has evolved from a textile option to a global standard for premium cotton fiber.

Yet there remains the elephant in the room that threatens to stifle even greater growth. It’s a three-headed beast that growers, ginners, merchants, and scientists wrestle with.

Marc Lewkowitz, president of Supima, told growers, merchants, and ginners at the association’s 63rd annual meeting held in Coalinga, Calif. that Race 4 fusarium wilt is one issue. It’s an insidious soil-borne disease that can wipe out a cotton field and render the ground useless for future cotton production.

Early on it was a California problem, but Lewkowitz said it’s rapidly spreading to Texas and other areas, often unrecognized or confused with other diseases.

Fortunately, there are highly tolerant or resistant Pima varieties that with aggressive management can minimize Race 4.

Bale packaging contamination

The other two issues are more problematic and ones that Lewkowitz and the Supima staff run into while promoting and marketing American Pima to textile mills. One is likely as old as the cotton business - contamination from bale packaging in the making of cloth.

Plastic fibers from bale packaging, especially white ones, intertwined in the cotton lint can render hundreds of yards of fabric worthless, if not detected early in the bale opening portion of the manufacturing process.

It has become so serious that China, one of American Pima and American Upland cotton’s biggest customers, is considering mandating cotton bale bagging.

“We do not want to be forced into a situation where one nation is in control about how we package cotton,” he said, entreating the industry to minimize or eliminate foreign fiber contamination to increase demand for American Pima.

Sticky accountability

The third challenge is more problematic, and has eluded effective solutions for 20 years in California. It’s sticky cotton caused by secretions from silverleaf whiteflies and aphids on cotton lint.

Gummy cotton lint is a problem from start to finish in the manufacturing process. It is expensive to gin and costly in textile manufacturing.

California cotton industry leaders have worked diligently to avoid what happened to Arizona cotton producers about 25 years ago when cotton from the Grand Canyon State was virtually blacklisted from the world market because it was so sticky. It took herculean efforts by leaders of the industry there to regain market share.

Frank, open discussions

Earl Williams, retired president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and an advisor to the Supima board of directors, has been the bold leader in the ‘No Sticky Cotton’ campaign in California.

It is not a major issue every year, but often enough to impact marketing efforts. This season was one of those “tough” years, said Lewkowitz. So much so that a sticky cotton summit was called in March at California State University, Fresno where Williams said there was “frank and open discussions” across all segments of the industry.

From that summit came a suggestion that the University of California Cooperative Extension re-evaluate insect treatment threshold recommendations.

However, Williams acknowledged that the major issue is that some growers do not follow control programs because they are too difficult and expensive with no consequences for delivering sticky cotton to a gin.

However, one grower’s sticky cotton affects all growers at a gin.

“It takes a lot of time and money to gin sticky cotton and when one or two growers deliver sticky cotton. At the end of the year all growers get the same return,” Williams said. “This never made sense to me. It’s not fair for the person who spent money to control the problem and one who did not get the same return.”

Financial penalty

Some gins have taken action. One several years ago told growers delivering sticky cotton to the gin to either take their cotton to another roller gin or have it saw ginned there which would greatly reduce the value of the extra-long staple Pima.

This year, two gins are changing their bylaws to move sticky cotton processing to the end of the ginning season and charging its producers added costs. At the season end, the cost of processing the sticky cotton would be compared to non-sticky cotton, and the sticky cotton grower would be financially penalized.

“This is exciting news and a move in the right direction in addressing the problem,” he added.

Growing acreage

Despite these challenges, American Pima cotton primarily grown in the San Joaquin Valley continues in big demand. Last year’s crop was 31 percent larger than the year before and 2017-2018 crop acres will be up by 32 percent from the previous year, according to USDA.

The agency is calling this year’s California acreage 38 percent larger. California produces more than 90 percent of the U.S. ELS crop. Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico also grow American Pima.

Of California’s almost 300,000 acres of cotton, more than 200,000 are planted in American Pima.

The crop reporting service is projecting a crop of 770,000 bales. However, growing season challenges will likely reduce that number to 725,000-730,000 bales, according to Lewkowitz.

Demand for last season’s crop exceeded early season projections by more than 80,000 bales, resulting in a carryover of just 42,800 bales.

Early season export sales are strong for this year’s crop with about 200,000 bales ordered through only two weeks of the crop year. Final exports are expected to reach 650,000 bales.

The demand for American Pima has increased through the entire downstream supply chain on a global basis.

Top global buyers

India has moved into the No. 1 export sales slot, replacing China, which is producing more high quality cotton. Egyptian cotton had been the premium fiber of choice in India, but American Pima has made great inroads in the country of 1.2 billion people, 400,000 of whom are middle class.

Lewkowitz said Indian consumers are very aware of cotton as comfortable clothing in India’s climate.

Supima partners

Supima now has 400-plus licensees in 41 countries which pay an annual royalty to use the Supima label.

“People want to partner with Supima,” said Ted Sheely, Kings County cotton producer and Supima board chairman. “Our goal is to make a better product and tell a better story. I am proud to see the tremendous range of products made by our cotton.”

Supima’s promotional efforts continue to add new, major brands including Banana Republic, GAP, Levi’s, Everlane, J Brand, and Stance for apparel; plus Casper and Malouf for home textiles.

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