GEORGIA farmer Steve Singletary stopped planting cotton in 1976 because he says, ``you just couldn't make it'' farming the white fiber anymore. Mr. Singletary wasn't alone - farmers in the Southeast nearly abandoned the crop. By 1985, only three growers were left in the once cotton-carpeted Early County, here in southwest Georgia.
But today a King Cotton renaissance is underway. The county landscape is swathed in fields of soft-white. For the first time since 1926, there were more planted acres of cotton in Georgia - 900,000 - than any other row crop.
And according to the latest United States Department of Agriculture estimates, the US is expected to harvest its largest cotton crop ever - about 19.5 million bales, much of it due to acreage expansion in the Southeast and good yields in the Southeast and Delta states.
The record crop comes at time when demand is strong, too. US cotton consumption is at a 50-year high, says Kevin Brinkley, an economist at the National Cotton Council in Memphis. ``Consumers' tastes have shifted to cotton. They prefer it over any other fiber,'' he says. The world market for the ``white gold'' - an old term coming back in vogue - is also hot. Textile exports are ``phenomenal,'' Mr. Brinkley says. Lower cotton production in countries such as China and Pakistan is helping keep prices up.
``Cotton is making a tremendous comeback,'' agrees Don Shurley, agriculture economist at the University of Georgia in Athens. ``Every [southeastern] state from Virginia to Florida has seen increases in acreage.''
In Early County, about 90 farmers, including Mr. Singletary, planted 23,000 acres this year, up from 1,900 acres in 1985 and 16,000 last year. A $4 million cotton gin has sprung up here on the outskirts of Blakely, the county seat.
The return of the row crop, harkens back to a bygone era. The cotton industry was once centered in the Southeast and Delta States before it moved West. In Georgia alone, more than 5 million acres of cotton were planted in 1914 compared to 115,000 acres in the late 1970s.
The viability of cotton farming in the Southeast declined because of: boll weevils, which hit Georgia and Alabama particularly hard; westward migration of the industry to states such as California and Arizona; and, among other problems, the growing use of synthetic fibers in fabrics.
Now, some of the same factors that drove cotton out of the region have been reversed and are causing its resurgence, which started in the late 1980s.
New and better varieties of cotton enable the Southeast to compete better with western and Delta states; farmers are getting higher yields on less acreage; demand for cotton is up; and prices are high, making the crop more profitable for farmers.
But many farmers and agriculture specialists say the biggest reason for cotton's comeback is a program that has eradicated the pesky boll weevil from the fields.
A tiny pest with a long snout, the boll weevil, entered Texas from Mexico in 1892 and began eating its way across the South. When it reached the Southeast in high numbers in the 1920s, farmers had no pesticides to combat it, and the weevils destroyed much of the cotton crops. Although pesticides were developed, many pounds of harsh chemicals had to be used. And if a farmer had not done a good job treating his fields, leaving hungry weevils behind, there was a good chance those weevils would migrate to neighboring fields that had been treated and cleared of boll weevils already.
In 1978, the USDA and cotton farmers began a pest management program in North Carolina. It became so successful at eliminating the boll weevil that the program was expanded to other Southeastern states. Farmers must first pass a referendum to implement the program, which is financed 70 percent by the growers and 30 percent by the USDA. Once passed, every producer must participate. The program works because it's a unified effort, says Johnny Paul DeLoach, executive director of the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Program.
Georgia, Florida, and parts of southeastern Alabama started the program in 1987, and have now declared these areas boll weevil-free. The program is expanding into parts of Texas, Tennessee, and eastern Mississippi. Farmers such as Billy Sanders, who grows cotton in Dooly County, Ga., tout the program. ``Getting rid of the boll weevil and the resurgence of the cotton industry in Georgia and the Southeast is the most important thing that's happened in agriculture in my lifetime,'' he says.
Mr. DeLoach praises the environmentally sound aspect of the program, which uses less pesticides and only treats fields if boll weevils are present. ``Before the boll weevil eradication program, we figured we were putting anywhere from 10 to 12 pounds of active-ingredient pesticides on per acre,'' he says. ``Today we're putting less than one pound on.''
DeLoach and Mr. Sanders say the growth of cotton in the Southeast is only going to expand. In Georgia, alone, they predict a doubling of acreage by 2000, to about 2 million acres.