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Staplcotn seeing a bountiful harvest season

Greenwood — This year’s cotton crop is poised for a bountiful harvest season, a near repeat of 2002.

“The yields are fabulous this year,” said Woods Eastland, president and CEO of Staplcotn. “We’ll probably market about 4.2 million bales before the harvest season is over.”

That would easily top the 3.8 million bales marketed for $1.3 billion last year by Greenwood-based Staplcotn, which handles one-fifth of the nation’s cotton crop. The cooperative sells about 98% of its cotton for above-average prices, charging members a retainer of $2.25 per bale, money that is returned after 10 years. (In its October report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated world cotton production would reach nearly 110 million bales.)

“Seed technology is one factor, but weather’s always a big component,” explained Eastland, the son of the late Sen. James O. Eastland. “It’s encouraging to see the agriculture base doing well in the U.S., specifically in the Delta states, because agriculture productivity is based on a mix of good soil and good weather — and that can’t be duplicated overseas.”

Staplcotn has achieved what its founder, Oscar E. Bledsoe Jr., envisioned on the train ride from Greenwood to Memphis in 1919, an event that cotton farmers often refer to as the turning point of the cotton industry.

Bledsoe, a farmer with several thousand acres of cotton in Shellmound, an agricultural community north of Greenwood, suspected the price he was getting for cotton was too low. His suspicions were confirmed when he overheard a Memphis cotton merchant, who had bought Bledsoe’s crop for pennies on the dollar the day before, bragging to a fellow cotton merchant about “making a killing.”

Incensed, Bledsoe began exploring other ways to market his crop and, at his own expense, hired Aaron Sapiro of California to help him create a cooperative marketing organization to insure that farmers would get the best prices for their cotton. On June 14, 1921, cotton growers met at the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis to form a committee of organizing directors. Bledsoe was elected president and chairman of the newly created association.

Over the years, Staplcotn endured numerous industry shifts and business plan revisions. Many changed occurred under Hank Hodges’ leadership (1978-1986). Cattle, grain, agriculture chemical and fertilizer operations were removed from the cooperative umbrella. Staplcotn’s market share began to rise, and its ineffective marketing program, which focused on the seemingly unwinnable battle against synthetic fiber, was replaced with a more successful strategic campaign.

The 1985 Farm Bill played a major role in doubling the U.S. textile industry’s cotton consumption during the next decade, and the marketing loan program guaranteed the nation’s textile industry that U.S. cotton would compete with the lowest prices in the world. (Subsequent farm bills continued that support.) But there was still much more work to be done, said Eastland, who took the helm in 1986.

“When I first started, I was appalled that so much of the cotton business was a cat-and-mouse game played between the merchant and the mill,” he said. “In too many cases, the merchant’s idea was to see how shy he could ship the cotton, what he could get by with. Everything was done on samples. The government … the merchant … the mill man, all classed the sample. Besides this cat-and-mouse game, many merchants would not meet delivery schedules and were late getting cotton.”

Company management decided the cooperative would be an “on time supplier, with cotton as good as, or better than, what the customer bought,” said Eastland. “It’s worked very well for us.”

Today, Staple Cotton Cooperative Association, better known as Staplcotn, is the oldest and largest producer-owned cotton marketing cooperative in America, supplying the nation’s best rain-grown cotton to the world. Along with Stapldiscount, services to its nearly 12,000 members in 50 states include domestic and export marketing, warehousing, and agricultural financing. To handle its nearly 21,000 farm accounts in 10 states, Staplcotn has a dozen regional offices in six Southern states, including field offices in Greenwood, Clarksdale, Greenville and Yazoo City, and 16 warehouses, including ones recently reopened in Drew and Vicksburg.

Renovations were recently completed on the company’s main offices at 214 West Market Street, a fixture in Greenwood’s Cotton Row Historic District for nearly a century. The two-year project called for linking the Bledsoe and Garrard buildings, named after the founder and Will Garrard, Staplcotn’s first general manager, to the former Bank of Commerce. Connected by a maze of hallways and stairs on three levels, the main entrance is now located at the lobby of the bank building.

“Now we’re really a part of the downtown community,” said Staplcotn spokesperson Vicki Wilkey. “Before, the only time people came to the building was on business. Now, folks from schoolchildren to tourists come to learn about the history of our company and its place in the cotton industry.”

Staplcotn has transformed its lobby into a mini-museum, with a timeline and other artifacts and vintage photographs depicted on murals. Historic pictures are featured throughout the complex, with sampling tables of cotton displayed on the third floor. The original floors and columns were retained in the Bledsoe building, and other architectural remnants were preserved in the redesign process.

“We didn’t want just a pretty, old building,” said Wilkey. “We wanted an historic walking tour.”

For now, Staplcotn’s 250 full-time employees and crew of temporary workers are regrouping after the mid-October peak of harvest season. Staplcotn will supply about one-fifth of the cotton used by the domestic textile industry, with end products including men’s knit underwear and t-shirts, sheets and towels, denim, fleece wear and knit casual wear such as golf shirts.

“The mission of Staplcotn and Stapldiscount is to enhance members’ incomes by providing cost-effective services in a manner that fosters their trust and confidence and meets exemplary standards of business and personal conduct,” said Eastland. “As long as we do this, this company is going to do fine.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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