UNADILLA, Ga. -- After 39 years of farming, Terrell Hudson knows how to grow America's best-selling fiber, that fluffy, white lint used to make a host of cotton products, from draperies to trendsetting fashions.
But since cotton is a global commodity, he's learned it's not enough to merely grow a decent crop. An even bigger challenge in recent years has been to sell it a decent price.
Walking through one of his green fields dotted with snowy puffs, Hudson said he's confident he'll reach his usual goal of two bales per acre - close to 1,000 pounds and well above the state average.
A cotton bale weighs 480 pounds and contains enough lint to produce 1,217 T-shirts, 249 pairs of jeans or 6,460 brassieres.
With an end to a five-year drought and ample rain during the growing season, 95 percent of Georgia's crop is rated fair-to-excellent and cotton prices are the highest in three years.
"This may be one of those years where we have that combination of tremendously good crop and relatively good prices," said Don Shurley, a University of Georgia cotton economist. "Sometimes, when prices are good we don't have anything to sell."
Still, things can go wrong during the harvest, which begins in a few days and continues through December.
Growers will be at the mercy of the weather and a host of other factors beyond their control, such as international trade policies, the impact of textile plant closings in Georgia and nearby states and a bigger supply this year from China and other countries.
"You wake up ... and it's hot and dry and that bugs you," Hudson said. "But you can irrigate, you can do crop insurance. There are some risk management tools. But we don't have any risk management tool as it concerns international trade."
American cotton growers have to export a larger portion of the crop because of the decline in the U.S. textile industry. But with cotton selling for 58 cents per pound, 18 cents more than last year, their profit potential has improved.
According to the latest crop report, released Thursday, the U.S. crop should total 16.9 million bales, about 270,000 bales less than last year.
Agricultural officials predict domestic sales of 6.6 million bales and exports of 12 million bales for a total of 18.6 million bales - 1.7 million more than growers will produce. That should force suppliers to tap into existing stocks, which tends to increase prices.
"It looks like U.S. and world stocks are tightening up," Shurley said. "World demand for cotton, although slowing, is still above last year. Foreign production may be a little less than we thought a month ago."
Hudson has about 1,400 acres of cotton this season. The bolls have already burst open, exposing the white fluff. In a few days, he'll spray his fields with chemicals that cause the leaves to drop off. Then boxy cotton-picking machines, as tall as two-story buildings, will rumble across the fields, gathering the lint and seeds.
The Agriculture Department predicts U.S. growers will have average yields of 667 pounds per acre this, the same as last year.
Georgia's crop should total nearly 2 million bales with average yields of 733 pounds. Last year's crop, plagued by drought during the growing season and excessive rain during the harvest, totaled only 1.6 million bales, with average yields of 557 pounds.
"We should be able to maintain prices in the upper 50s as we get into harvest," Shurley said. "The outlook for this winter could be even higher prices."
Some facts about Georgia cotton:
- Cotton is one of Georgia's top row crops, worth more than $352 million last year.
- Cotton is grown in 95 of Georgia's 159 counties.
- It was first planted in Savannah's Trustees Garden in 1733 with seed from England.
- Though cotton was grown in other colonies, Georgia was the first to produce it commercially.
- The cotton gin, which opened the door for large-scale production, was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 while he was visiting a plantation near Savannah. The comb-like mechanism replaced the labor of 50 workers.
- The highest number of cotton acres planted in Georgia since accurate records were kept occurred in 1914, with 5.15 million acres. Growers have planted 1.3 million acres this year.
- Cotton was the "King" of Southern crops until the boll weevil forced many farmers to switch to other commodities.
- The crop rebounded in the early 1990s, following an eradication program that rendered the boll weevil an insignificant pest in Georgia.
Source: Georgia Cotton Commission and Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service