WHEN cotton was king in North Carolina, the Civil War was a few decades old and the Great Depression hadn't happened yet. Then prices fell and insects invaded. The plant that once vied with tobacco as the state's most valuable crop dwindled to almost nothing here.
Now, it's back.
``Cotton is way, way, way ahead ... of corn and soybeans,'' says Taylor Slade of Williamston, N.C., who switched from corn to cotton two years ago. ``I made a total commitment.'' The state's cotton acreage has more than quadrupled in the last six years.
The trend is part of a national revival. Americans are moving away from synthetics, like nylon and polyester, back to natural fibers. In 1982, cotton owned only a quarter of the textile market; last year, it grabbed 37 percent. The leading market: men's and boys' shirts. The United States produced 877 million T-shirts last year - enough to clothe every American three and a half times.
``The growth has been pretty universal,'' says Jim Howell, senior market analyst for the National Cotton Council of America.
The burst in consumer demand has been a boon to cotton farmers. Cotton acreage has jumped nearly a third since 1987. The move has been especially strong in the Southeast because the boll weevil has been eliminated as a major threat, and alternatives like corn have fared less well, says Leslie Meyer, an agricultural economist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
``With corn, it was always on the edge,'' Mr. Slade says. For example, corn has a seven- to 10-day window to complete a crucial pollination phase. If the weather is too hot, the crop will suffer. Cotton plants, by contrast, have a two-month window in which to put on bolls. The crop has made a solid addition to Slade's high-value tobacco and peanut crops.
Slade and 23 other investors have pooled resources to build a $3 million gin. It was one of four new gins put up in the state in 1991 and, at the time, the state's largest. An older facility has been enlarged, though, making it the state's largest.
For Slade, the move to cotton is a return to his roots. His family, which has farmed here since 1723, raised enough cotton to justify its own gin. But in the late 1950s, Slade's father left the business because it was too difficult and unprofitable. Many North Carolina farmers had come to that conclusion years before.
In 1930, North Carolina had 1.5 million acres planted with cotton. But the arrival of the Great Depression, plummeting prices, and the boll weevil took its toll. By 1986, the state had planted only 82,000 acres of cotton. This year, farmers planted 390,000 acres of cotton.
``They found out that, of all the cash crops, cotton retained the most money,'' says Wally Johnson, a retired ginning specialist in Garner, N.C.
In some ways, the long decline in cotton acreage was beneficial. With fewer acres to worry about, pest scientists concentrated on the boll weevil, which invaded fields and punctured cotton buds. Farmers dumped as much as 30 pounds of DDT and other insecticides on each acre to save their crop.
In 1978, farmers, the USDA, and the state Department of Agriculture started an experimental eradication program that worked so well it was expanded statewide. Using extensive monitoring techniques, it has eliminated the boll weevil as an economic threat. For every 100 pounds of chemicals farmers used to pour on their crop, they only need one pound today.
The program has also made cotton-growing more profitable. Although farmers pay $10 an acre for the eradication program, which is mandatory, one economist estimates that farmers end up saving $36 per acre.
SCIENCE, though, has not provided solutions for heat and drought, which this year have taken a toll on the cotton crop.
``Right now, we're expecting a pretty decent amount of cotton,'' says Fred Fox, commodity director of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. A recent report estimated that only 7 percent of the state's crop was poor.
But the outlook in Williamston is less sanguine. ``It's going to be worse than that,'' says Clint James, manager of the Roanoke Tar Cotton Inc., the gin that Slade invested in. (It was named for the nearby Roanoke and Tar Rivers.) Normally, harvesting would start around Oct. 1. But this year has been so hot and dry that harvesting will begin more than a week early.
Yet, despite its big advances, no one expects cotton to become king again in North Carolina. The state still has less than 3 percent of the nation's 13.5 million cotton acres. (Texas, by contrast, has 42 percent.) Even within North Carolina, 10 other crops are considered more important.
Still, Mr. Johnson is optimistic about the crop's potential. ``I see more growth ahead in North Carolina,'' he says.