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COTTON (Gossypium)

mature cotton boll

Cotton History

Cotton has a long history. In fact it may have the longest history of any of the domestic crops in our area. The oldest known cotton cloth comes from Mexico and has been dated to approximately 5000 B.C. A couple thousand years later cotton was being actively produced and used in some Arabic countries, namely Pakistan and Egypt. By the ninth century, cotton had been introduced to Europe by Arab traders seeking new markets. After that it was but a short time, just into the 16th century, that cotton was a familiar product, used throughout the world.

Cotton was first grown in the American Colonies in 1607 at Jamestown and it would have a vast impact on the economy and the policy's of the future United States. The first notable political impact on our fledgling nation was its impact on the foreign powers in regards to the Monroe doctrine. This doctrine was one of the first major foreign policy decisions of this country when the United States determined it would prevent old world nations from attempting to continue colonizing the new world. Great Britain was the key to enforcing the Monroe Doctrine as we had no real navy with which to police its edict. Great Britain's need for our cotton products greatly influenced their decision to support the doctrine and use the threat of their navy to defend it.

Cotton continued to grow in importance in the economy of the south and the United States. It truly became the cash crop with the advent of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. With the invention of the cotton gin, which allowed cotton to be cleaned fifty (50) times faster than by hand, the cotton revolution in the South had begun. Due in large part to this invention, demand for cotton soared. Within ten years from Whitney's invention, the value of the United States annual cotton crop rose from $150,000 to over $8 million dollars. However, mass cotton production required cheap labor, thereby inducing early settlers, and later on southerners, to import large numbers of slaves. While it is important to note that slave labor was vitally important at that time to produce cotton in large quantities, slave labor alone would have been insufficient to inculcate the value of cotton to Europeans in significant numbers to matter. The true gem of the cotton revolution, as it is stated above, was the cotton gin. Without it, the cotton revolution would never have taken place, and slavery would have never reached the size or scope that it did by the outbreak of the Civil War. As time went on, this slave labor economy grew to be the wealth of the cotton producing south and was one of the principal economic factors influencing the outbreak of the Civil War. Western Europe's dependence on cotton produced in the Southern United States caused ample discussion among the old world powers as to whether intervention in this war might be in their best interest. Cotton was again influencing our foreign policies as the South eagerly sought for military aid from Europe and the North just as adamantly insisting these nations not get involved. Eventually the European powers stayed out of the war and the South was defeated. Cotton is a crop with whom the entire development of our nation today is completely intertwined.

Great Britain also has a long, long history with the crop and it has also had many of policies created due to its influences. The United States and Great Britain, up until recent years, led the world in manufacture of cotton goods. This tremendous amount of production was not an insignificant cause for why the British were strongly imperialistic for so many years leading up to the Second World War. They needed markets for their cotton manufactures. India and North Africa provided these markets.

In the United States today Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Louisiana are the biggest cotton producing states, respectively. Georgia, as you will note, is the second highest producing state on this list. Today when you ride around in our area in the fall it seems to be everywhere. I notice four or five fields planted in cotton for every field I see planted in another crop. It is without question one of the driving forces in our immediate market area of Georgia. While there was a definitive decrease of the acres planted in cotton in the 70's, it seems the world has returned to its senses and favors cotton over polyester.

immature cotton plant

Cotton and the Boll Weevil

As cotton is such an enormously important crop in our area it is probably worth some discussion on one major pest and the events that led to its introduction here and its affect on the cotton industry then and the changes it forced over time. This pest is certainly the most important factor on cotton production due to its tremendous impact on the way cotton is grown, not only in Georgia but the south as well. This is the boll weevil.

The first question must be, what is a boll weevil and how did it get here? The boll weevil is essentially a small beetle measuring about 6 millimeters in length with a voracious appetite for cotton. The boll weevil immigrated into the United States from Mexico in the 1890's (where cotton was a natural indigenous plant) and continued its advance all through the cotton belt of the Southeastern United States.

To give a brief overview, the boll weevil first appeared in Georgia in Thomasville in 1915. Thereafter cotton production began to decline at an alarming rate, from an historical high of 2.8 million bales in 1914 to merely 600,000 bales by 1923. As late as 1983, Georgia produced only 112,000 bales of cotton on 115,000 acres of harvested land. In 1987, Georgia began the active treatment and trapping phase of an eradication program that has helped return cotton to its former prominence in the state. Each year since the end of active phase of the eradication program has seen a strong increase in cotton yields, from 482 pounds per acre in the pre-eradication period (to1986) to approximately 733 pounds per acre in the post eradication period (to 1995). Average gross crop revenues increased from $70 million to $400 million per year. In 1995, 2 million bales were harvested on 1.5 million acres, which was 59% more than in 1994 and the largest yield to that point since 1919. It also produced total revenues of about $720 million which was the highest in Georgia history to that date.

So how did this all begin? It seems that the boll weevil has a long and extensive history with cotton. The oldest known evidence of the boll weevil was discovered in the mid 60's in a cave in Mexico when a specimen was found entangled in cotton boll. It seems that the boll weevil has been active for a long time indeed as the cotton was dated to around 900 AD. For many years, despite this discovery, the main food plant of the boll weevil was unknown. It wasn't until 1885 that the first scientifically verified record of boll weevil damage to cotton was reported.

The boll weevil made its first unheralded appearance in the United States in1892 near Brownsville, Texas. By 1895, the pest had spread as far north as San Antonio, and as far east as Wharton, Texas. It was reported at this time that the boll weevil was likely to advance at an astounding rate of 65 miles north and east per year. By 1903, the boll weevil menace was being clearly felt in Texas. The outlook was widely considered to be very bleak. By 1903, potential losses over the entire cotton belt were estimated at $250 million, which amounted to about 50% of the entire value of the crop. These estimates were derived from Texas growers who lost $15 million or 53% of their crop in 1903. In Georgia, on August 28 1903, the legislature passed the Georgia Quarantine laws that prohibited the importation of any living Mexican boll weevil or any cotton bolls, plants, or seed containing the adult, pupal, larval or egg stage of the boll weevil. This was an early attempt by the legislature to prevent the spread of the boll weevil to Georgia. Unfortunately, this attempt would not prevent the spread across the cotton belt and eventually into Georgia.

By 1904 the weevil was still only in Texas, but it had progressed 500 miles north from its original point of entry near Brownsville. Total cotton losses throughout the cotton belt were $15 million in 1903, $22 million in 1904, and $88 million in 1909. As you can see the spread of the weevil was wreaking havoc on the cotton crop wherever it was present, and it was moving quickly. By 1908, the boll weevil had crossed the Mississippi River and fully half of the cotton producing acreage in the South was affected. At this time, little was known or understood about the life cycle of the boll weevil. As such, few recommendations on how to combat the growing insect plague were available. The main suggestion to growers was merely to destroy as early as possible the cotton stalks. This suggestion did little to hamper the weevils expansion.

By 1911, the boll weevil had advanced into central Alabama. It was in this year as well that Georgia produced what is still its largest crop in history. Georgia produced 2.8 million bales on 4.9 million acres. By 1914, more land was planted in cotton in Georgia than at any other time in its history at 5.2 million bales. At the same time the boll weevil had advanced to a point in Alabama only six miles from the Georgia line. At this point the boll weevil becomes heavily integrated into Georgia cotton history as everything that is done with cotton in Georgia must take into the consideration the ongoing battle with the boll weevil. By the fall of 1914 crop losses in the westerly cotton producing states was averaging about 60%, and the boll weevil was about to enter Georgia.

The first known observation of the boll weevil in Georgia was in Thomasville on August 25, 1915. The day that all Georgia cotton farmers had dreaded so much had finally arrived. The boll weevil menace had come to Georgia. By the first killing frost of November 1915, the boll weevil had been sighted in 40 counties and have covered a geographic area of 86,000 square miles. At this same time, a man named B.R. Coad was publishing his detailed observations on the hibernation and life history of the boll weevil. It was from his observations that the foundation of the diapause control method was created which became the centerpiece of the boll weevil eradication program that was to be used in Georgia seventy years later.

As soon as 1917 every cotton producing county in Georgia had reported the boll weevil and cotton production had declined by 30% to 1.96 million bales produced. Up to this point the use of chemical agents was not widespread, so other than stalk destruction there was no real means of prevention for the boll weevil. In 1918 however, the USDA had been conducting control experiments using arsenical dust on test fields in Louisiana. The results were very favorable, especially considering all former attempts to poison the boll weevil had met with dismal failure. In one test field the yields averaged 500 pounds per acre versus on 50 pounds per acre in an untreated field. This success would lead to a committed effort to begin use of arsenical dust in the cotton belt. It would be necessary as by 1919 the boll weevil was reported across the entire cotton belt from South Texas to the Carolinas and total losses were estimated at $40 million in Georgia alone. This would lead some scientists to label the boll weevil as "the most destructive cotton insect at present in Georgia."

In 1920, one prominent author on the subject wrote that some sections of Georgia were experiencing crops losses from the boll weevil in excess of 50 to 75 percent of their crop. This was due in large part to the fact that dusting cotton for boll weevil control was still not general practice in the state of Georgia. By 1921, the cotton industry in the United States was experiencing a severe depression due to crop losses form the boll weevil and emerging competition on the world market from other countries. Georgia was clearly feeling the brunt of this depression as its cotton losses were 45%, the largest of any state in the cotton belt. To underscore the seriousness of the threat to the agricultural production of the United States Soule wrote in this same year that the boll weevil "has disturbed our economic situation more than any other single factor since the conclusion of the Civil War; it is a pest of as great a magnitude as any which afflicted the Egyptians in the olden days".

In 1924, the first public demonstrations of aerial spraying of pesticides were held at Athens and Cordele on August 28. The advent of this new method of pesticide application would be important for the future control of the boll weevil. One airplane could dust 750 to 1000 acres per day. This represented a huge increase over the meager amount acreage that could be dusted by hand. These advances were becoming more necessary than ever as the overall yield losses from the boll weevil for the entire south from 1921 to 1925 were estimated at 17.3%, with a peak coming in 1921 of 30%. These figures merely represent the actual cotton revenue lost and don't even take into consideration the additional costs of the prevention methods many farmers had been using. With these figures also added in the losses become truly staggering to contemplate. Around this time D. Isley published some observations that would lead to the development of pheremone trapping, an integral part of the eradication program. Unfortunately for the farmers of this era, these observations would not be put into practice for 40 more years.

In Georgia in 1927, despite the ravages of the boll weevil, cotton was still the number one cash crop in Georgia, exceeding the value of all other crops grown in the state. Elsewhere, Acala cotton was discovered. This high yielding, long staple cotton was prized for its resistance to the boll weevil and is now grown extensively in the Western United States. The farmers continued to seek out new means to battle this intrusive pest and it has been said that the boll weevil laid the foundation for the foundation of extension work.

By 1930, most growers, out of necessity, had incorporated dusting and fall plowing into their general farming practices. Still, overall production and revenues continued to decline and more and more of the world's market share was being lost to competing foreign nations. By this year harvested cotton in Georgia had declined 35% in 15 years. Total production had declined 40% during the same period. As you can see the blight had seriously affected the agriculture industry in Georgia. As a largely agricultural state this was a crippling economic blow to the state and only further fueled the fires of the depression to come. By 1934, boll weevil damage had exceeded $200 million per year across the cotton belt, and cotton acreage in Georgia had declined to merely 45% of the total farmed prior to the boll weevils introduction to the state. This decline was the greatest of any cotton producing state.

As 1940 approached cotton was still the premier cash crop in the state of Georgia but it no longer was as dominant as it had been. It used to be produced in more value than all other crops combined in the state, yet this was no longer true. The principal methods of control for the boll weevil were essentially the same as since the early 1920's; arsenic dust and plowing of the stalks. These methods were proving to be only marginally effective at best. They were doing little more than keeping enough cotton marketable to maintain it as a viable crop. They were not solving the problem. Fortunately for the state many farmers were turning to other crops to make up the difference and the economy was able to somewhat replace the economic losses from less cotton production by increased production of other crops such as peanuts.

In 1950 The Georgia Experiment Station produced a somewhat disturbing report on the state of the boll weevil and cotton in the south. Despite all the technological gains and improvements made in respect to growing cotton the yields still averaged one half bale per acre just as it had for more than one hundred years. In addition, due to the boll weevil, and new synthetic fibers, the total acreage in cotton continued on the decline. Worse still, the report claimed that the boll weevil population was considered greater that year than at any point prior with counts as high as 3,900 weevils per acre in some fields. To put it bluntly, all the calcium arsenate dusting and changes in farming practices had availed them nothing. The problem was worse than ever. It was about this time that new pesticides were coming into use. These newer pesticides would prove to be more effective in dealing with the escalating problem.

The federal government had clearly not taken enough of an initiative at arresting this problem. This can be evidenced by their outlays to address this crisis. The government spent a total of $3.2 million on research from 1892 to 1950 to deal with the boll weevil. By comparison many conservative estimates declared losses in this same period to be approximately $200 million per year. Clearly the government was not acutely aware of the destruction this pest was creating, not only on a regional scale, but a national one as well.

In 1959 J.R. Brazzel and L.D. Newsome published a paper outlining the winter diapause of the boll weevil. This, and Coad's earlier work were the basis of the eradication program that eventually ended the menace of the boll weevil. Brazzel showed four applications of pesticide at the appropriate moment in diapause would reduce boll weevil populations by 90%; an astounding rate. It was also discovered that by using pheremone traps, 88.5% of the remaining adults could be removed. This was an enormous breakthrough in the battle against the voracious beetles. On a test farm, using these very methods they reduced the boll weevil population by 99%. Still the battle wasn't over and they discovered it would take a concerted effort to eradicate the weevil. It was noted that male boll weevils were being caught in traps as far as 45 miles from the nearest cotton. This showed you could not treat some areas and not others, but everything in a wide area. It was also discovered that a single untreated acre of cotton could provide enough weevils to infest the surrounding 1800 acres.

In 1972 it was estimated that losses in cotton production were $200-$300 million annually with an additional $50 to $70 million spent each to arrest further loses to the boll weevil. Therefore, in December of 1973 the Secretary of Agriculture was required in the Agricultural Act of 1973 to carry out an eradication program if it was feasible. After much debate with many primary study groups it was decided in 1978 to begin the Trial Boll Weevil Eradication Program in North Carolina.

Due in large part to the radical success of the Eradication Program in North Carolina, a Georgia Referendum was passed in November 1986 to begin an eradication program in Georgia. The fall diapause phase of the eradication program began in September 1987. The pheremone trapping phase then began in April 1988. The program continued in an active state until 1995. Since then it has been run in a maintenance phase. The eradication program has been an enormous success in Georgia and yields and production has been increasing ever since. The boll weevil has ceased to be a real threat and the agricultural economy of cotton is booming in Georgia again. In Georgia, since the eradication of the boll weevil, cotton is king again.

cotton plant with flowers

Cotton Uses

What do you think of, when you think of cotton? Most people think of fabric. Cotton fabric is without question the biggest use of cotton crops. This cotton fabric is the lint used in making cotton cloth. Cotton cloth provides more clothing than all of the world's other textiles combined. This as you can see makes cotton an extremely important crop around the world. Part of the reason cotton fabrics are so popular and widely used is due to its durability. Clothes made from cotton may last many, many years. Not sure it's durable? Did you know that US textile manufacturer's use enough cotton to make more than two billion pairs of men's jeans annually. Jeans and flannel are both made from cotton and both are tough and among the most durable of clothing. Cotton is also famous for its comfortability. This is due mainly to its unique ability to both absorb and release moisture very quickly. This is often referred to as "breathability." This makes it a very comfortable all weather type of apparel, that is popular in many climates around the world.

In the plantation era all but the lint was discarded as waste, but today many other parts of the cotton plant are used for a variety of purposes. Linters (short, cut ends removed from the seed after ginning) now provide cellulose from the cotton plant to create numerous common products. The cellulose is used for making plastics, paper, pads for mattresses, furniture and even automobile cushions. The cellulose is also often used in the manufacture of some explosives. Cottonseed oil is also a very useful part of the plant that is frequently used for a variety of purposes. After being removed from the linters the cotton seeds are shelled and crushed, then treated with solvents to produce this crude oil. This oil is used primarily for margarine or shortening, cooking oil, and even salad dressing. It is also used for the manufacture of cosmetics. Less highly refined forms of this oil are used in making soap, candles, detergents and even artificial leather. The meal and hulls from the cotton plant have value as well. They are extremely high in protein so they can be and often are most often used in both livestock feed and fertilizers.

In all the cotton plant is a tremendously valuable crop not only to this area's economy, but also to many nations around the world. The fabric and products created from the cotton plant are used around the world for the betterment of the consumer and the economy. The cotton crop in the United States alone accounts for more than $30 billion dollars in products and services. This simple crop is a cornerstone of the modern agricultural market. The variety of products and the relative low cost of production make it one of the world's most influential and valuable crops from the most economically advanced to the meanest of third world countries.

cotton flower bud

Facts on Cotton and Cotton Planting

So, what is cotton? Well, cotton is a natural plant that produces one of the best natural fibers in the world. There are two types of natural fibers, protein fibers and vegetable fibers. All protein fibers come from animals and vegetable fibers come from plants. The cotton plant that produces the fiber is about 44 to 50 inches tall at full maturity. It has reddish colored branches and looks almost like an adolescent tree. The cotton fiber is made from the small bolls that flower on the plant. The boll is essentially the cotton fiber you think of, as in a cotton ball, and it is full of seeds. These bolls are picked from the plant and then deseeded to leave a clean sturdy fiber ready for production.

There are many subspecies of cotton, both natural and transgenic. Gossypium is the general scientific name for cotton. Some notable subspecies are Gossypium anomalum, Gossypium barbadense, Gossypium tomentosum, and Gossypium hirsutum to name a few. Natural cotton is a naturally occurring form of the plant. Transgenic is slightly different however. Transgenic cotton is a variety genetically altered by the addition of foreign genetic material (DNA) from another variety. This is done to create forms of cotton that may be resistant to certain insects, nematodes and herbicides. A good example of transgenic cotton is round-up ready cotton. This form of cotton is resistant to the active herbicide in Round-Up. This allows one to spray Round-Up directly onto the crop to control other weeds without harming the cotton crop. There are many different types of these transgenic varieties of cotton, in fact far too many to name. They are all necessary in various climates to battle different type of weed or pest infestations that may damage or destroy a crop.

So what is an ideal cotton plant? The ideal plant would be 44 to 50 inches in height. It would have 22 to 24 nodes with the first fruiting branch coming at node 6. It would contain approximately 12 to 14 fruiting branches and have a boll retention of around 67 percent. There are a copious number of factors that can affect these ideals. Poor soil, continuous planting, weed infestation, nematodes, inclement weather and more can all have a negative impact on the yield and grade of the final crop.

Cotton is today a major staple of the agricultural production of the United States. From its humble beginnings until only recently the United States has been the world's largest cotton producer. For these many years the United States was second only to Great Britain in the manufacture of finished cotton products. In the early 1990's China overtook the United States as the world's leading cotton producers. Today China and India are world's leading cotton producers followed by the United States and other countries, most notably Pakistan, Brazil and Egypt. In large part, the reason for China and India's increase in production levels of cotton is due to the fact that historically all cotton producing nations have relied heavily on cheap labor. Labor has become consistently more expensive in this country while it has remained fairly inexpensive in these largely undeveloped countries. Given this fact, it is hardly surprising that the countries should have reached a point where they have exceeded our production. Even though in this country we have technological advantages, such as mechanical cultivators and picking devices, these technologies have only started to become more prevalent since after World War II. It is likely that with the increase in labor costs in this country and the vast amounts of the unskilled, cheap labor that is necessary for the production of cotton available in these countries, that we will continue to fall further down this list. Nonetheless, cotton is a viable and invaluable asset to our nation's agricultural crop and it must be protected as best as it can. It will continue for many years to provide huge numbers of jobs and dollars to our country.

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