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These are not the best of times in the Cotton Belt. But the cotton industry tried to put on its best face for the annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio.

Although cotton prices have fallen to low levels and arenít expected to rebound soon, 3,900 cotton producers turned out for the "Beltwide," which has become one of the pre-eminent forums for technology transfer in U.S. agriculture.

Cotton merchant William B. Dunavant Jr., whose annual "Market Place Insights" speech has become something of a tradition at the Beltwide, may have best summed up the situation facing cotton farmers in 2000:

"I think this is my 14th year to speak at the Beltwide, and the earlier years were certainly more fun," he told the opening session of the conferences. "They were more fun because I had the opportunity to share some good news, but, the last two years in particular, every facet of the cotton industry has struggled to survive."

Dunavant, chairman of Memphis, Tenn.-based Dunavant Enterprises, is regarded as the largest cotton marketer in the world.


Dunavant said the good news for cotton for the last two years has been that the President and Congress have recognized the plight of agriculture and have passed emergency legislation providing a total of $15 billion to help with the situation.

"This year's legislation was even more beneficial because they doubled the AMTA (Agricultural Marketing Transition Act) payments, doubled the payment limitation for one year and put Step 2 back in for the life of the farm bill," he noted. "If agriculture does not improve this coming season, I believe we will once again have emergency farm legislation, primarily because it is an election year."


Mark Lange, director of economic services for the Cotton Council, said the key for the next few years probably lies in being competitive rather than in higher prices. "Cotton has to work with the equipment and fashions that comprise the world's textile industry, be sought by consumers and be priced to move in world markets," he noted.

Despite the grim outlook, analysts said they don't look for a sizable reduction in cotton acreage in 2000 - primarily because of government help and lack of profitable alternatives.

"With the marketing loan provision and a timely assist from Congress in the form of additional payments, it now looks as though weíll make it to the spring with plenty of people still willing and able to plant cotton," said Wayne Bjorlie, director of USDA's Fibers Analysis Division.

Reducing production costs was also a hot topic at the Beltwide. "Fifteen years ago, we routinely made eight to nine tractor applications before planting," said Rick Bransford, producer from Lonoke, Ark. "For the last six years, we have reduced that to two or three applications, lowering costs from $45 to $55 to $14 to $18 per acre."


Several ag marketers used the Beltwide as a forum to introduce new products or, in the case of one company, a new name.

Aventis CropScience, which became the new name of Rhone-Poulenc Ag Products and AgrEvo in December, held a breakfast for ag media representatives to discuss how the two entities will work together.

"We have expectations that we will gain market share in the years ahead because of our product mix and our reputation for good service," said Richard Bettison, director of marketing in the United States for the new company. AM


Forrest Laws is executive editor of Delta Farm Press, a Farm Press Publication, in Clarksdale, Miss.

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