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Each January, most everyone with a stake in the U.S. cotton industry gathers at "the Beltwide." That's short for the Beltwide Cotton Conferences - a unique forum that has evolved from a small gathering of researchers 70 years ago into the global champion for transferring technology to producers and processors across the 17-state Cotton Belt.

Accelerating technology transfer to U.S. cotton producers is a challenge because technology development itself is on such a fast track.

"Since I began going to the Beltwide 20 years ago, agriculture technology has changed at a much greater pace than it did in the previous 100 years," says Kenneth Hood, a Gunnison, Miss., cotton producer and ginner.

"The meetings keep me on top of these changes. I've attended other meetings," says Hood, who currently serves as chairman of the National Cotton Council (NCC), "but none like the Beltwide. I can see what other farmers in other regions are doing. And I can talk to researchers across the Cotton Belt about what they are working on that can help me improve my operation."

The NCC believes so strongly that the Beltwide helps strengthen U.S. cotton producers' competitive position in the world marketplace, it has remained the conferences' lead coordinator for the past 50 years.

The NCC gets help from federal and state agricultural experiment stations, the Cooperative Extension Service, universities, USDA, other regional and national cotton organizations, the trade media and Cotton Foundation members such as BASF, Bayer, Valent, Syngenta and Monsanto.

The conferences' humble beginning can be traced to 1935 when the Cotton Disease Council met with the current Association of Southern Agricultural Scientists. In 1947, insect control and defoliation research conferences joined in and the first Beltwide Cotton Mechanization Conference was held. The latter was the result of a NCC resolution supporting programs to achieve complete mechanization of cotton production.

Through the years, other disciplines, from weed science to quality measurements, joined. Today, 11 technical conferences are held along with the Beltwide's anchor - the two-day Cotton Production Conference. That conference includes two half-day general sessions and two afternoons of workshops and special seminars that zero in on topics ranging from nematode control to ultra-narrow row production systems.

The conferences pack in more than 700 reports covering the latest developments from the lab and practical applications in the field, the gin and the textile mill.

Hood said the Beltwide offers him the "complete scenario." That is, he can get the latest information that affects his operation, whether it's federal farm program provisions, crop insurance, transgenic cotton varieties or marketing his crop. He said the hands-on workshops are a particular favorite because he can move freely about, asking questions at stations manned by researchers, agribusiness representatives, other cotton farmers and Extension agents.

This face-to-face dialogue is a big reason for the Beltwide's growth surge. Attendance climbed steadily from 700 in 1975 to more than 2,000 in the mid-1980s, but then soared again, reaching more than 5,000 by the late 1990s. Much of that growth was from cotton producers, ginners and their family business partners and employees who recognized the need to keep up with the acceleration in technology changes.

Neil Strong, head of agricultural relations for Syngenta Crop Protection, Greensboro, N.C., says the conferences enable his company to interact with a cross-section of people.

"We can share information about products in our pipeline, get input from them on our products and see what our competition is doing, all at one place," Strong says. "We get a lot of important business done in a short period of time."

The 2003 Beltwide Cotton Conferences will be January 6-10 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn. For more information, contact the NCC's Debbie Richter, (901) 274-9030 or AM

T. Cotton Nelson is manager, public relations for the National Cotton Council of America.

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