Flashback: In the Land of Cotton

Courtland farmer Sikes Martin in his 4,136-acre cotton planting in 1988

September and October is cotton harvesting season in north Alabama, where we went with a cover story in 1988, “The Return of Cotton.”

Cotton, of course, never went away entirely in Heart of Dixie Alabama. It was just put in the shade of soybeans and polyester and such.   

Having peaked in 1949 at 1,925,000 acres, Alabama cotton dipped to a low of 219,000 acres in 1983, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture accounting beginning in 1945.

The turnaround came with the collapse of soybean prices and a simultaneous rise in demand for natural fibers.

“I’m just going to take a wild guess that the socks you have on right now are 80 percent cotton,” said Dale Moseley, owner of a state-of-the-art, $1.5 million, 52,000-square-foot cotton gin and warehouse in Abbeville, in Henry County. “You probably have on cotton shorts and a shirt with an 80 percent cotton tag. There’s a better than even chance the pants you have on are cotton too. Now 15 years ago, all those would have been synthetics — nylon or rayon. Cotton is definitely coming back, and it’s coming back in a big way. Cotton brought here is going to move almost as fast as we can gin it.”

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Suddenly U.S. cotton growers could count on a domestic demand (4 million bales) that had textile mills running 24 hours per day for the first time since the 1970s, and to an international demand that had depleted warehouse stocks all over America. In two years, world consumption of cotton had increased from 28 million bales to 35 million bales, with much of the new growth going to emerging textile industries in Asia.

Cotton is a primary crop in four areas of Alabama today: along the banks of the Tennessee River, along the Alabama River around Montgomery and west into Dallas County, near Auburn in the Chattahoochee River Valley and in the counties surrounding Atmore in the south.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of  Business Alabama.

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