COTTON is king again.The textile fiber once ruled the economy of the Deep South. Today it commands a United States market whose decade-long expansion accelerated during the recession. And orders from abroad are huge and fairly steady. Meeting this demand are 30,000 American farmers, who will harvest the country's largest cotton crop in more than 50 years and the third-largest since the federal government began keeping records in 1790. The restoration of cotton follows the permanent-pressed 1960s, when the natural fiber was deposed in favor of polyester. Cotton's share of the apparel and household fabric market tumbled from its usual 80 percent range to 34 percent by 1975, even though polyester fetched 20 cents more per pound. "Most anyone within the industry thought that cotton was history. They were really convinced that polyester was the future," says William Daddi, director of public relations for Cotton Inc., which promotes the fiber on behalf of growers.
Teen market courted Formed in 1970, Cotton Inc. aimed to reclaim market share lost to synthetic fibers. Research showed that people then older than 25 were wearing polyester double-knits. On the other side of the generation gap were rebellious teens wearing all-cotton T-shirts and jeans. "We decided right then and there that that was really our customer," recalls Nicholas Hahn, president of Cotton Inc. "We began to really communicate with that generation in a very aggressive way." The company relied almost exclusively on television advertising, at the time an untried medium for the textile industry. A "feel good" advertising campaign, in which cotton is portrayed as a "lifestyle ingredient," clicked with baby boomers devoted to natural living and environmental correctness. Cotton's share of the fabric market has climbed back to 54 percent. Polyester has 24 percent. Cotton growers are working to grab another 6 percent inside of three years. Although 1990 was burdened by a recession in its last six months, retail sales of cotton products rose $4.6 billion over the 1989 level. And this year, with its own recession months followed by a feeble recovery, retail cotton sales have already bettered the 1990 performance by $1.3 billion, Mr. Daddi says. After talking to consumers, Cotton Inc. concluded that the recession gave cotton a boost because people view the fabric as durable and therefore a good value. Cotton also makes people feel comfortable and secure, which consumers especially yearn for during a recession, Daddi says. This year, US cotton mills are projected to consume 8.8 million to 9 million bales, a 20-year high. US production will reach 17.9 million bales. That's a 14 percent increase over the 1990 crop year, which ended July 31. "We see the possibility of a 20 million-bale market by the end of the decade," says Fred Middleton, a spokesman for the National Cotton Council (NCC), which represents all segments of the industry. That will require growth in the export market, he acknowledges. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that this crop year's exports will be 7.2 million bales, down from 7.8 million last year. The decline doesn't bother Mark Lange, the NCC's director of economic services. He points out that the gap between foreign consumption and production is narrower this year. "We will export cotton. We just won't export quite as much," he says. The Soviet Union is putting an unusually large amount of cotton onto the market because of large volumes left over from last year and a decline in its own demand this year. The Soviets are offering the lowest price, but they have to because they are an unreliable supplier, Mr. Lange says. "They'll sell it to you. When you get it is another matter," he adds. The US, on the other hand, remains in a strong export position, with 30 percent of the market. Reliability of supply and quality are key sales points. Mr. Hahn notes that, for the first time, classification of the entire US cotton crop for color, cleanliness, fiber length, and strength will be automated. That will give buyers a wealth of valuable data. The large US crop is matched by a large world crop, depressing prices. This week the world price fell below the floor set in the US farm program for the first time in three years, notes USDA economist Robert Skinner. Even so, Hahn says, cotton growers have been doing better on average in recent years than before.
Trend to naturalness Some cotton growers are boosting their incomes by falling into step with the trend toward naturalness. Texas has 500 acres of cotton certified by the state agriculture department as organically grown in a program started this year. That isn't much out of the more than 5 million acres of cotton planted in the state, the nation's largest producer of the crop. But demand is large enough to increase such plantings by a factor of six next year, state officials say. Other farmers have begun raising cotton tha t is green or brown instead of white, and thus does not need to be dyed. Natural Cotton Colors Inc. of Wasco, Calif., is paying the farmers more than double the current price of white cotton to grow colored cotton from its patented seeds.