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The U.S. cotton industry generates about 200,000 jobs among the various sectors from farm to textile mill and accounts for more than $25 billion in products and services annually. Cotton is produced in 17 southern States from Virginia to California. Major concentrations include areas of:

  • the Texas High and Rolling Plains;
  • the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana Delta;
  • Southern Georgia; and
  • California's San Joaquin Valley.

U.S. cotton is grown as an annual from seed planted each year, although cotton can be grown as a perennial in tropical climates. Given the vast differences across the U.S. production area, the cotton growing season PDF icon (16x16) varies dramatically, as typical planting occurs between March and June and typical harvesting occurs between August and December.

The predominant type of cotton grown in the United States is American Upland (Gossypium hirsutum). The upland type, which usually has a staple length of 1 to 1 1/4 inches, accounts for about 97 percent of the annual U.S. cotton crop. Upland cotton is grown throughout the U.S. Cotton Belt, as well as in most major cotton-producing countries. The balance of U.S.-grown cotton is American Pima or extra-long staple (ELS) (Gossypium barbadense). ELS cotton, which has a staple length of 1 1/2 inches or longer, is produced predominantly in California, where it is particularly well adapted to environmental conditions. ELS cotton is also grown in the arid regions of southwest Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The markets for ELS cotton are mainly high-value products, such as sewing thread and expensive apparel, although it is also used in home items, such as bath towels and rugs.

Cotton acreage in the United States rose slightly during the first half of the 2000s, which continued a multi-decade trend. In the 1970s and 1980s, area planted to cotton averaged about 12 million acres. Area rose to about 14 million acres in the 1990s and averaged over 14.5 million acres during the first half of the 2000s. Since 2006, however, U.S. cotton planted area has been considerably lower as relative prices have favored the planting of alternative crops, such as corn and soybeans. All regions of the Cotton Belt have experienced significant declines as compared with the first half of the 2000s.

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According to the Census of Agriculture, U.S. cotton farms numbered 18,605 in 2007, down from 24,805 in 2002. While the number has fallen, cotton acreage per farm has risen, averaging 564 acres per farm in 2007 compared with 502 acres in 2002. The percentage of large cotton farms (over 1,000 acres) has continued to increase while the share of small cotton farms (under 100 acres) declines.

Similar to area, cotton production in the United States during the first half of the 2000s continued a rising trend, paralleling advances in technology (seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery) and production practices (reduced tillage, irrigation, crop rotations, and pest management systems). The impact of these changes has been particularly evident, with yields and production reaching new highs. While U.S. cotton production decreased considerably following the area reductions of the late 2000s, consistently higher yields helped limit the effect of these acreage declines.

Consumption of cotton by U.S. textile mills peaked in 1997. Since then, U.S. mill use of cotton has plummeted, dropping about 50 percent by 2005 and nearly 70 percent by 2009. While the end of the Multifibre Arrangement's (MFA) PDF icon (16x16) quotas in 2005 was a factor, much of the decline in U.S. textile production occurred before then. Capital investment by global textile suppliers near the turn of the century provided increased concentration and market share, accelerating a long-standing trend of textile production moving to developing countries. Despite the decline of U.S. textile production, U.S. consumer demand for cotton products remains strong, but imported clothing now accounts for most purchases by U.S. consumers. (See U.S. Textile and Apparel Industries and Rural America for more information about the impact of changes in textile trade on the U.S. textile industry from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.)

The world's four largest cotton-producing countries are China, India, the United States, and Pakistan, which together account for nearly 75 percent of world production. Other major producers include Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. While cotton is generally a Northern Hemisphere crop, about 8 percent of the world's output comes from south of the equator (primarily Brazil and Australia) and is harvested during the Northern Hemisphere's spring.

Many of the leading cotton producers are also leading mill users of raw cotton. The top three consumers are China, India, and Pakistan, which together account for two-thirds of world consumption. Turkey and Brazil are the fourth and fifth largest mill users of cotton, bumping the United States to sixth place among consuming nations.

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Trade is particularly important for cotton. About 30 percent of the world's consumption of cotton fiber crosses international borders before processing, a larger share than for wheat, corn, soybeans, or rice. Through trade in yarn, fabric, and clothing, much of the world's cotton again crosses international borders at least once more before reaching the final consumer.

The cotton industry continues to face many of the supply and demand concerns confronting other field crops. However, since cotton is used primarily in manufactured products, such as clothing and home furnishings, the industry faces additional challenges associated with the economic well-being of downstream manufacturing industries, as well as the economic well-being of the final consumer.

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Last updated: Saturday, May 26, 2012

For more information contact: Leslie Meyer, James Kiawu, and Stephen MacDonald

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