USDA helps China develop cotton classing system

The world's largest cotton producing and consuming country is rebuilding its cotton inspection system along the lines of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's cotton classing program.

China is about to begin a five-year program to revamp the 100-plus cotton inspection facilities that grade the nearly 30-million-bale cotton crops Chinese farmers have produced the last two years. The reforms are scheduled to begin in September and be completed in 2010.

Much of the effort will involve converting China's largely manual system to high volume instrument or HVI classing, using equipment developed in the United States, according to James L. Knowlton, chief of the Standardization and Engineering Branch for the USDA AMS Cotton Program.

“The Chinese actually contacted us back in 2003,” Knowlton said. “They let us know at that time that the decision had been made to reform their system based on the USDA model.”

Representatives from the China Fiber Inspection Bureau, which oversees all the fiber grading in China, made their first trip to the United States in February 2004, Knowlton told participants in the Engineered Fiber Selection Conference in Memphis, Tenn.

“As we progressed in our information exchange, the follow-up visits became more detailed,” he said. “We moved from more general topics to more detailed operations and the real specifics of how we perform classing and produce standards.”

Exchange visits

A delegation from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service traveled to China in October 2004. “We had two full days of intense, detailed information exchanges in addition to field tours there,” he noted. “We picked up the pace even more last April when the Chinese came back over here for four days.

“This reached the level of getting into our detailed instructions of how we actually calibrate and the real nuts and bolts of classing at USDA.”

Another USDA AMS Cotton Program delegation left June 18 to travel to the International Cotton Conference in Shanghai to make a presentation on the U.S. classification system.

The Chinese are especially interested in the history of the USDA classing system because they are trying to reach the level of sophistication of USDA's Cotton Program in a relatively short period of time.

“They've asked a lot of question about where we came from and what authorizes us to do what we do — the legislation and the regulations we operate under,” he said. “This is not only from the classification part of it but for the establishment and maintenance of the standards.”

The Chinese system will ultimately surpass the USDA system in size since the five-year plan is to classify the entire Chinese crop under the new system. Before they get to that point, they will have to look at producing their own calibration materials.

Seek compatibility

“Our objective at USDA in all of these information exchanges is to ensure that their system develops so that it is completely compatible with the USDA system,” says Knowlton. “The Chinese are in agreement with this because they see the importance of maintaining one world for cotton classification and standardization.”

China currently maintains more than 100 fiber inspection facilities, which are similar to the USDA AMS Cotton Program's classing offices (12 of them across the U.S. Cotton Belt). The China Fiber Inspection Bureau plans to operate about 110 inspection facilities when the reform program is completed.

“A number of the existing facilities will not be used because they will not be able to accommodate the equipment and environmental systems that are required for HVI classing,” he said. “Some will be new offices.”

Plans call for 330 to 340 HVI systems to be in place in the inspection offices when the reform program is completed.

The Chinese are also attempting to standardize their ginning equipment, switching from the Chinese bale press systems that produce a 187-pound bale to one that produces bales the same size as the 500-pound universal density-type bales common in the United States.

“They are employing two-sided sampling, the same as we do here in the United States and implementing a new bale identification system that closely models our CBI system,” he noted. “And they are building new warehouses to accommodate the larger bales.”

Pilot program

The China Fiber Inspection Bureau has already begun a pilot program incorporating some of the features of the reform plan. The pilot program began last September and runs through August when the full, official reform effort begins.

As part of the pilot plan, the Chinese are “reforming” eight classing offices and 12 cotton gins. The Chinese purchased 23 HVI lines that were installed in those eight classing offices.

“When the full reform begins this September, they intend to buy 62 additional HVI systems, and these will be the new Model 1000 units that USDA currently is procuring. That will bring the total to 85 for 2005 (compared to 294 HVI lines in the United States).”

The new system will have other features unique to the USDA classing system, including a color chart.

“The Chinese have their own grade standards, and they want to implement a color chart that does what ours does,” says Knowlton. “We have a chart where we can take our rd and +B measurements and convert it to a color grade. They've been getting a lot of information about the color chart we developed.

Enormous task

“They are developing a central data base based on the U.S. model so that all the data from all their facilities will funnel into one central system that will then be accessible to all of their customers.”

The arduousness of the task facing the Chinese cannot be overestimated, says Knowlton.

Under the reform plan, the Chinese Fiber Inspection Bureau will be charged with classing the cotton of 30 million farmers with an average farm size of less than one-half acre. It will have to work with more than 8,000 cotton gins through its network of more than 100 inspection offices.

“The biggest challenge they face will be gaining the acceptance of the new system by the Chinese cotton industry,” he says. “There's no guarantee that this system is going to fly. They have to sell it to the industry.”

Knowlton says the gins are mostly owned by cooperative groups, which are made up of farmers who have to decide whether to adopt the reforms. “It's my understanding that it's not being forced upon them, this is voluntary. And, of course, the merchants and textile manufacturers also have to sign off on them.”

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