Cotton production in the United States

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Left: Acres of upland cotton harvested as a percent of harvested cropland acreage (2007). Right: Unloading freshly harvested cotton using a mechanical cotton picker in Texas.

Cotton production is an important economic factor in the United States as the country leads, worldwide, in cotton exportation. The United States is ranked third in production, behind China and India.[1] Almost all of the cotton fiber growth and production occurs in southern and western states, dominated by Texas, California, Arizona, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. More than 99 percent of the cotton grown in the US is of the Upland variety, with the rest being American Pima.[2] Cotton production is a $25 billion-per-year industry in the United States, employing over 200,000 people in total,[1] as against growth of forty billion pounds a year from 77 million acres of land covering more than eighty counties.[3] The final estimate of U.S. cotton production in 2012 was 17.31 million bales,[4] with the corresponding figures for China and India being 35 million and 26.5 million bales, respectively.[5]

Early cotton farming in the United States is synonymous with the history of slavery in the United States. By the late 1920s around two-thirds of all African-American tenants and almost three-fourths of the croppers worked on cotton farms, and two in three black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming. Cotton farming was one of the major areas of racial tension in its history, where many whites expressed concerns about the mass employment of blacks in the industry and the dramatic growth of black landowners. Southern black cotton farmers faced discrimination from the north in particular, and strikes often broke out by black cotton farmers. Although the industry was badly affected by falling prices and pests in the early 1920s, the main reason is undoubtedly the mechanization of agriculture in explaining why many blacks moved to northern American cities in the 1940s and 1950s during the "Great Migration" as mechanization of agriculture was introduced, leaving many unemployed.[6] The Hopson Planting Company produced the first crop of cotton to be entirely planted, harvested and baled by machinery in 1944.[6]


Picking cotton in Oklahoma (1897)


Imported from Europe, cotton has an ancient history of over 5,000 years, and is also traced to Alexander carrying cotton cloth on his shoulders while returning from India.[3]

Native Americans were observed growing cotton by the Coronado expedition in the early 1540s.[7] This also ushered the slave trade to meet the growing need for labour to grow cotton, a labor-intensive crop and a cash crop of immense economic worth. And in the American South an entire civilization was based the "King Cotton". As the chief crop, the southern part of United States prospered thanks to its slavery dependent economy. Over the centuries cotton became a staple crop in American agriculture. The cotton farming also subsidized in the country by U.S. government, as a trade policy, specifically to the “corporate agribusiness” almost ruined the economy of people in many underdeveloped countries such as Mali and many other developing countries (in view of low profits in the light of stiff competition from the United States the workers could hardly make both ends meet to survive with cotton sales).[3]

Early period[edit]

Black cotton farming family
Black cotton workers, 1886

Historians believe that cotton was introduced into the United States by immigrants. While it was recorded in Florida in 1556 and in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, it is believed that cotton has been planted and cultured in the United States since 1621.[8] Plantation owners brought mass supplies of labor (slaves) from Africa and the Caribbean and Mexico to farm the fields during cotton harvests.[9] Black women and children were also employed in the industry.[10] Cotton farming became a major issue of racial conflict in the history of the United States, particularly during the 19th-century. Prior to the U.S Civil War, cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850. After, Southern black cotton farmers faced discrimination from the North, and many white Democrats were concerned about how many of them were being employed in the U.S. cotton industry and the dramatic growth of black landowners.[11][12] They urged white farmers in the South to take control of the industry, which from time to time resulted in strikes by black cotton pickers; for instance blacks led by the Colored Farmer's Association (CFA) strikers from Memphis organized a strike in Lee County, Arkansas in 1891, which resulted in much violence.[10] Black cotton farmers were very important to entrepreneurs which emerged during industrialization in the United States, particularly Henry Ford.[13]

20th century[edit]

The United States, observed in 1940 that "many thousands of black cotton farmers each year now go to the polls, stand in line with their white neighbors, and mark their ballots independently without protest or intimidation, in order to determine government policy toward cotton production control."[14] However, discrimination towards blacks continued as it did in the rest of society, and isolated incidents often broke out. On September 25, 1961, Herbert Lee, a black cotton farmer and voter-registration organizer, was shot in the head by a white state legislator in Liberty, Missouri.[15] Yet the cotton industry continued to be very important for blacks in the southern United States, much more so than for whites. By the late 1920s around two-thirds of all African-American tenants and almost three-fourths of the croppers worked on cotton farms.[16] Three out of four black farm operators earned at least 40% of their income from cotton farming during this period.[16] Studies conducted during the same period indicated that two in three black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming.[17]

The introduction of modern textile machinery such as the spinning jenny, power loom, and cotton gin brought in more profits, and cotton towns, “more benign than the British” came to be established in the country. Following the end of slavery in the southern states the boll weevil, a pest from Mexico, began to spread across the United States, affecting yields drastically as it moved east. The fashion cloth of the blue jeans furthered boom of cotton for three decades. Adoption of chemical pesticides to reduce diseases and thus increase yield of the crop further boosted production. Further innovations in the form of genetic engineering and of nanotechnology are an encouraging development for the growth of cotton.[3]

Left: Cotton farming in Mississippi using Parchman prison convicts (1911).
Right: Cotton field ready for harvest in West Texas (2007).

The average production of lint per acre in 1914 was estimated by the United States Department of Agriculture to be 209 pounds, a nominal change from 1911 when it was 208 pounds. In the early 1910s, the average yield per acre varied between states: North Carolina (290 pounds), Missouri (279 pounds), South Carolina (255 pounds), Georgia (239 pounds); the yield in California (500 pounds) was attributed to growth on irrigated land.[18] By 1929, the cotton ranches of California were the largest in the US (by acreage, production, and number of employees).[19] By the 1950s, the mechanical picker had gained appeal and affordability throughout the U.S. cotton growing area.[20]

The cotton industry in the United States hit a crisis in the early 1920s. Cotton and tobacco prices collapsed in 1920 following overproduction and the boll weevil pest wiped out the sea island cotton crop in 1921. Annual production slumped from 1,365,000 bales in the 1910s to 801,000 in the 1920s.[21] In South Carolina, Williamsburg County production fell from 37,000 bales in 1920 to 2,700 bales in 1922 and one farmer in McCormick County produced 65 bales in 1921 and just 6 in 1922.[21] As a result of the devastating harvest of 1922, some 50,000 black cotton workers left South Carolina, and by the 1930s the state population had declined some 15%, largely due to cotton stagnation.[21] Although the industry was badly affected by falling prices and pests in the early 1920s, the main reason is undoubtedly the mechanization of agriculture in explaining why many blacks moved to northern American cities in the 1940s and 1950s during the "Great Migration" as mechanization of agriculture was introduced, leaving many unemployed.[6] The Hopson Planting Company produced the first crop of cotton to be entirely planted, harvested and baled by machinery in 1944.[6]

Recent period[edit]

In 2012, production totaled 17.3 million bales, with 12.3 million acres planted. The average price was $0.71 per pound with a crop value of $5.97 billion.[22] A report published in May 2012 by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service ranked the highest cotton-producing states as Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Missouri, Alabama, California, South Carolina, and Louisiana.[23]


The United States is the world's top exporter of cotton, shipping some 12 million bales per annum.[24] Four out of the top five importers of U.S.-produced cotton are in North America; the principal destination is Honduras, with about 33% of the total, although this has been in decline slightly over recent years. The next most important importer is Mexico, with about 18%, a figure which has been broadly stable, and then the Dominican Republic, although exports have declined as a proportion of the total in recent years. China imported about 11% of U.S. cotton last year, which was a sharp increase over previous seasons, allowing it to overtake El Salvador, which has consistently imported about 8-9% of the total.[25] Cotton exports to China grew from a value of $46 million in 2000 to more than $2 billion in 2010.[26] In Japan, especially Texas cotton is very highly regarded as its strong fibers lend themselves perfectly to low tension weaving.

Cotton production by state[edit]


Texas produces more cotton than any other state in the United States. With eight production regions around Texas, and only four geographic regions, it is the state's leading cash crop. Texas produces approximately 25% of the country's cotton crop on more than 6 million acres, the equivalent of over 9,000 square miles (23,000 km2) of cotton fields.[27] Texas Cotton Producers includes nine certified cotton grower organizations; it addresses national and statewide cotton grower issues, such as the national farm bill and environmental legislation.[28]

Loading cotton module in California (2002)


California’s cotton is mostly grown in seven counties within the San Joaquin Valley, though Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley also have acres planted. In the 1990s cotton was also planted in the Sacramento Valley. California is the largest producer of Pima cotton in the United States. The California cotton industry provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state and generates revenues in excess of $3.5 billion annually.[29]


In the late 19th and early 20th century, federal agricultural engineers worked in the Arizona Territory on an experimental farm in Sacaton. It was here that Pima Indians cultivated various cotton hybrids seeking ideal traits. By the early 1900s, the botanist Thomas Henry Kearney (1874–1956) created a long staple cotton which was named Pima after the Indians who grew it. In 1910, it was released into the marketplace. While in 1987, Arizona was producing 66% of the country’s Pima cotton, it has dropped to only 2% in recent years.[30]

Cotton harvester in Mississippi (2007)


From 1817 when it became a state, to 1860, Mississippi was the largest cotton-producing state in the United States.[31] Cotton is a major crop in Mississippi with approximately 1.1 million acres planted each year. The highest acreage recorded was in 1930 (4.163 million acres); the highest production year was 1937 (2.692 million bales produced over 3.421 million acres); the highest cotton yields were in 2004 (1034 pounds of lint produced per acre).[32]


Cotton growing is confined to the westernmost tip of the state; over 50% of the Santa Rosa County's harvest is of cotton.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Overview". United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. March 5, 2013. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  2. ^ United States. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment (1987). The U.S. textile and apparel industry : a revolution in progress : special report. DIANE Publishing. pp. 38–. ISBN 978-1-4289-2294-5. 
  3. ^ a b c d Yafa, Stephen. Big Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber. Overview and editorial reviews. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  4. ^ "Cotton Newsline: May 15, 2013". National Cotton Council of America. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  5. ^ "National Cotton Council of America – Rankings] )". (2011-03-13. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Cotton Pickin' Blues". Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  7. ^ "History", Cotton's Journey. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  8. ^ Smith, C. Wayne; Cothren, J. Tom (30 August 1999). Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production. John Wiley & Sons. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-471-18045-6. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  9. ^ Foley, Neil (1997). The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in the Cotton Culture of Central Texas. University of California Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-520-91852-8. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Walker, Melissa; Dunn, Jeanette R.; Dunn, Joe P. (1 January 2003). Southern Women at the Millennium: A Historical Perspective. University of Missouri Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8262-6456-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  11. ^ Mccartney, John (20 July 1993). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Political Thought. Temple University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-56639-145-0. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  12. ^ Barnes, Donna A. (18 May 2011). The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900. LSU Press. p. 1851. ISBN 978-0-8071-3935-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  13. ^ Skrabec, Quentin R. (11 March 2013). The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry. McFarland. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-7864-6982-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  14. ^ Lawson, Steven F. (1 January 1999). Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944 - 1969. Lexington Books. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7391-0087-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  15. ^ Green, Ruthie (August 2012). A Chain of Events: A Black Woman's Perspective on Our Rise to Prominence from Slavery to the White House. iUniverse. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4697-7390-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  16. ^ a b Myrdal, Gunnar (1995). Black and African-American Studies: American Dilemma, the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Transaction Publishers. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-4128-1510-9. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Sharpless, Rebecca (1999). Fertile ground, narrow choices: women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940. UNC Press Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8078-4760-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  18. ^ American Cotton Supply and Its Distribution (Public domain ed.). U.S. Government Printing Office. 1915. pp. 28–. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  19. ^ Weber, Devra (1996). Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal. University of California Press. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-0-520-91847-4. 
  20. ^ Hurt, Douglas R. (2002). American agriculture: a brief history. Purdue University Press. pp. 359–. ISBN 978-1-55753-281-7. 
  21. ^ a b c Edgar, Walter (1998). South Carolina: a history. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 485. ISBN 978-1-57003-255-4. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  22. ^ "United States Cotton Production". National Cotton Council of America. 
  23. ^ "Louisiana Farm Reporter, Vol 12, No., 10" (PDF). USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. May 17, 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  24. ^ "Agriculture Statistics > Cotton exports (most recent) by country", Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  25. ^ "Leading destinations of U.S. cotton textile exports". US Department of Agriculture. 2013-05-14. Retrieved 01/06/2013.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  26. ^ Xiuzhi Wang, Edward A. Evans, and Fredy H. Ballen, "Overview of US Agricultural Trade with China", University of Florida IFAS Extension. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  27. ^ "Texas". Soil and Crop Sciences Department, Texas A&M University. 
  28. ^ "Texas Cotton Producers". Texagnet. 
  29. ^ "California Cotton Questions & Answers". Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  30. ^ "The Pima Cotton Boom". Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  31. ^ Dattel, Eugene R. "Cotton in a Global Economy: Mississippi (1800-1860)". Mississippi Historical Society. 
  32. ^ "Cotton Production in Mississippi". Mississippi State University. 

Further readings[edit]

  • Roger G. Kennedy, Cotton and Conquest: Howe the Plantation System Acquired Texas. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

External links[edit]