Cotton, one of the Southeast's key crops, has long had an integral role in the region's agricultural economy. The industry, which extends far beyond cotton farms to include other parts of the productions chain such as gins, cottonseed oil mills, and warehouses, generates billions in business revenue for the region. The industry also supports thousands of jobs.
In "King Cotton Still Part of Southeast's Fabric," featured in the third-quarter issue of EconSouth, staff writer Lela Pratte examines the long-term challenges facing the southern staple, as well as the steps the industry has taken to grow cotton more efficiently and increase its market share.
Among the greatest challenges facing cotton in the Southeast is competition from foreign producers and from synthetic fibers—but before the cottonseeds can even be planted, the crop must also overcome competition from other crops for acreage. Rival crops such as soybeans and corn have been relatively more profitable than cotton in recent years thanks to high prices for these commodities. As a result, cotton acreage has lost ground across much of the Southeast. This decline has had knock-on effects on cotton-related infrastructure in the region, much of which is specific to cotton and depends on a certain number of acres being harvested in order to be profitable.
Cotton's ongoing competition with synthetic fibers and foreign producers has forced the industry to invest heavily in research and development in order to produce higher-quality fibers, reduce production costs, and increase market share for the fiber. One area where the benefits of these technological advances are most prevalent is in cottonseeds. Genetically modified (GM) cottonseeds with a built-in resistance to certain pests and weed killers have helped reduce the amount of chemicals used and allowed farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices such as minimal-till farming. Research dedicated to finding new uses for cotton has helped make it more competitive with synthetic fibers and regain ground in markets where it formerly dominated, such as athletic gear.
With strong demand for cotton forecast and a number of new technologies on the horizon, southeastern cotton is well positioned to maintain its strong presence on the U.S. and world stage, writes Pratte. "King Cotton may no longer be the economic monarch he once was in the Southeast, but he's a long way from losing royal status."