Protecting Cotton's Good Name
Harvesting cotton in western Texas.
Lamesa is a rural community about 60 miles south of Lubbock and home to
about 11,000 Texans. Its 1,200 cotton growers produce 200,000 bales annually,
providing a stable economy for the local community.
But what happens if a town like Lamesa gets a reputation for weak and dirty
When that seemed to be the case in the 1960's, Lamesa growers, showing true
Texas grit, decided to help themselves. They began by putting aside $40,000 to
buy a new cotton testing system.
The system was developed by USDA's Agricultural Research Service in
cooperation with Motion Control, Inc., a small instrument manufacturing company
in Dallas. It was called High-Volume Instrumentation (HVI).
Growers heard that this system could classify cotton with amazing speed and
accuracy. They reasoned it would prove they had quality cotton and enhance
their market standing.
By the 1970's, when the Lamesa cotton classing office faced closure, growers
raised nearly a million dollars more and obtained matching federal funds to
keep it open. They were to be the first U.S growers to have a classing office
that used the HVI system. King-Mesa Gin general manager Jerry D. Harris was
vice president of Lamesa Cotton Growers Association at the time.
Harris says Jesse S. Moore, the now-retired director of the Cotton Division
of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, was vital to the project. Moore,
however, says it was a case of two groups serving each others' needs.
"We knew this was a superior classing system, and we were looking for a
community where we could prove it," says Moore.
"Lo and beholdat the same time we were lookingLamesa
There were many start-up problems and differences of opinion between cotton
industry groups, recalls Harris. "HVI forced us producers to look at our
product, at the quality of our fiber. Before HVI, we didn't know what kind of
cotton we were growing."
Because growers and breeders could better evaluate their current crops,
they were also able to identify cotton with valuable genetic traits.
"Since plant breeders can now gauge quality with better certainty, we've
been able to upgrade strength by about 30 percent in Texas," says Carl G.
Anderson. He is a cotton marketing specialist with Texas A&M University.
But, adds Harris, HVI classification resulted in improved cotton quality all
around the worldnot only in Lamesa. Within a few years of the advent of
High-Volume Instrumentation, he says, Japanese and other textile mills were
asking for Lamesa cottonand cotton classificationby name. So were
"Before HVI, 90 percent of our cotton was exported at a discount
because of its perceived poor quality. Today, 60 percent of it goes to the more
profitable domestic market," says Harris.
Even so, "It was a real gamble," recalls grower Dave M. Nix,
another former president of Lamesa Cotton Growers. He farms 2,400 acres.
"For all we knew, we could have been growing junk cotton. But what we
found was that our cotton is as good as products selling for 7 cents more per
pound," says Nix.
Having a clear indication of cotton quality is important to mills, because
the fabric they make depends on the kind of cotton they buy. Though coarse,
short fibers are satisfactory for blue jeans, a flowing summer dress demands
more expensive long, fine fibers.
But Lamesa isn't the only community benefitting from this cotton classing
technology. Eighteen cotton-producing nations recently agreed to incorporate
HVI classification as part of an international quality standard. In fact, HVI
data can be transmitted all over the world through computers.
"HVI systems have been installed worldwide," says Harmon H. Ramey,
chief of the Fiber Technology Branch with USDA's Agricultural Marketing
Service, the agency that classifies all U.S.-grown cotton for domestic and
international markets. HVI became a part of the AMS standard grading system in
While many nations benefit from HVI, the system has helped U.S. growers
gain new stature in competitive world markets.
"On average, U.S. cotton enjoys a premium in the world market,"
says Mark D. Lange, who is chief economist for the National Cotton Council, a
group representing the domestic cotton industry. "It's due to many things,
including HVI grading and widespread faith in U.S. delivery contracts."
If growers get 4 cents more per pound premium, that can mean an extra $355
million for the industry, based on the 18.5 million bales classed for the
1994-95 crop. About half of the crop (9.5 million bales) was exported.
Cotton Incorporated, a marketing and research group for U.S. cotton growers,
developed computer software that manages HVI data. This software provides
cotton management and analysis information, as well as electronic communication
between mills, ginners, producers, and merchants.
ARS textile technologist Charles K. Bragg heads the Clemson, South
Carolina, laboratory where HVI was born. Bragg was just joining the research
unit when HVI prototypes were being developed. His goal was to make HVI more
consistent, so quality ratings would have worldwide dependability.
"We needed to develop instrument systems so that whether growers were
in Memphis, Tennessee, or Memphis, Egypt, their HVI measurements meant the same
thing," says Bragg.
Actually, HVI is not one machine, but three-each feeding data into a central
The first machine tests a fiber's resistance to a puff of air, which is
determined by its fineness. The second uses a device called a colorimeter to
detect subtle variations in cotton color, from gray to yellow to white. It also
has a video camera to detect leaves, stems, and other trash. The third machine
uses air to draw fibers out to their full length and measure themand then
pulls the fibers apart to test their strength.
"The concept was very simple. Precision measuring equipment for cotton
already existed for use in the laboratory. The trick was to consolidate,
automate, and speed up the steps so that an integrated system could measure 800
samples in an 8-hour day, instead of 40," Bragg says.
Before the advent of HVI, most cotton testing was done manually. In one test
method, fibers were separated by length and laid out on black felt. Then
someone would measure the fibers to determine their average length, and a
second person would check that measurement. To test strength, the fibers were
fastened in clamps by hand and broken in a cumbersome pendulum-type device that
operated very slowly.
Now, the latest development in quality measurement is AFIS, Advanced Fiber
Information System, which detects fiber fineness, diameter, and length. It can
also remove cotton trash and detect immature, "undyable" fibers
AFIS was born over a business lunch Bragg shared with William F. Lalor and
Frederick M. Shofner, two scientists from the cotton industry. By the end of
their lunch, they had a rough blueprint for AFIS drawn on a napkin. That
blueprint, scribbled with notes, dated, and signed by the three scientists, is
framed on Bragg's office wall.
Today, there are 350 AFIS systems worldwide, says Peter C. Jones, who is
with Zellweger Uster of Knoxville, Tennessee, the company that sells both AFIS
and HVI machines. "AFIS has only been on the market since the early 90's,
but it's really catching on," he says.
According to Bragg, there are about 1,000 of the ARS-developed HVI
classification systems in operation worldwide. -- By Jill Lee, ARS.
USDA ARS Cotton Quality Research Station, P.O. Box 792, Clemson, SC
"Protecting Cotton's Good Name" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.