Asian mills want fiber uniformity

Japan would really prefer only mature cotton fibers that take up dyes well. Thailand complains of seed coat fragments in lint. Vietnam wants lower price and settles for lower quality. Indonesia distrusts the U.S. grading system and is doing more business with Australia.

Those are among the impressions concerning San Joaquin Valley cotton returned by Don Cameron, a Helm, Calif., grower representing his counterparts across the U.S. on a National Cotton Council mission to textile mills and cotton buyers in Southeast Asia.

Cameron, general manager of Terranova Management Co.'s 9,000 acres of cotton, processing tomatoes, wine grapes, and other crops, joined six other cotton industry leaders in the trip last April. The four nations they visited will use more than five million bales during the 1999-00 marketing year.

Speaking at the recent conference in Fresno of the Western Cotton Shippers Association, Cameron said, "The bottom line is the ultimate buyers of our cotton do have a choice, and we need to make every effort to sell the most uniform quality available.

"California growers need to do our part to keep competitive. Sticky cotton, or cotton contaminated with plastic, baling twine, or roadside trash can only lose long-term sales."

Outlining the visits, Cameron said spinners in Japan are watchful of weather conditions in the SJV during the growing season and took note of showers in California during planting this year.

While Japan is not the largest cotton importer in Asia, it does control more than 2.5 million bales for its domestic use and that of its affiliates across Asia. It is a very important customer for California cotton.

In their highly industrialized economy, Japanese textile mills have many of the same problems as American mills, such as high labor costs. To circumvent costs, the Japanese have formed joint-venture mills with other Asian countries to better compete in both domestic and foreign markets.

The Japanese economy fared better than others in Asia after the 1997 crash, and Cameron said, "Their biggest fear is increased competition from low-cost producers of yarn, fabrics, and finished goods. They continue to look for new products to stay ahead of their competition."

One successful innovation is deodorant-impregnated underwear recently introduced by the largest underwear producer in Japan, he added.

Japanese spinners asked if California growers could pick only mature fibers because the immature ones do not take up dyes well.

The delegation learned that genetically modified cotton is not an issue in Japan, although GMO food products there will require labeling as such after April 2001.

Thais competitive Moving on to Thailand, the team learned the Thais are progressive and prepared to compete anywhere with high quality products for the export trade.

Mills complained of seed coat fragments, neps, and plastic contamination. At least one was quite concerned about SJV quality, Cameron said. It received a shipment of mixed lots of Acala and experimental "California Upland" lint, sold as Acala.

"When our one-quality law changed, it created a lot of confusion," he said, referring to the relaxing of varietal restrictions in the SJV since January of 1999. He said Asian mills will need more education about California cottons.

Vietnam, still a small user of U.S. cotton, recently signed a trade agreement with the U.S. but only after a year of negotiations.

Cameron said he was impressed by the high degree of governmental control from Hanoi on the 78 million inhabitants, 80 percent of them under age 40. There is one police station for every 100 families, and travel is closely monitored.

Nevertheless, Cameron said, the team found the Vietnamese to be friendly, energetic, and eager to establish new relationships.

A factory worker earns $30 to $50 a month, and bicycles and motorcycles are the main means of transportation. Heavy equipment lies idle because of lack of spare parts or fuel.

Vietnam grows about 35,000 acres of cotton in the highlands region, and although yields and quality are low, new varieties may improve the situation. Meanwhile, spinners there resist higher prices because they say they can manage with lower quality.

Indonesian mills export 70 percent of their output of cotton products. Before the economic crisis three years ago, the production was divided equally between domestic and foreign markets. Cameron said he was taken by the contrasts of skyscrapers and Third World poverty.

Two major spinning companies operate in Indonesia and rely heavily on GMS-102 credits to buy U.S. cotton. The government credits mean an interest rate 100 to 400 points lower than that available locally.

Mills are reducing the fine-count yarns and increasing medium counts. Use of Acala is increasing and use of Pima is declining.

Many Indonesian mills buy cotton by type and not by green card because they distrust the U.S. grading system, Cameron said.

Mills are also being wooed by Australian cotton, promoted for lower cost and consistent quality. Claims are that it has fewer neps and orders can be filled within two weeks due to the proximity of Australia, which produced about three million bales last year.

Mill use is expected to be about 2.8 million bales, about one-quarter from the U.S., 45 percent from Australia, and the remainder from other sources.

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