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U.S. cotton farmers are suffering from two years of depressed prices — China, weather and yoga pants are mainly to blame

James Morrison Dec 29, 2017
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NC Cotton Farmer David Dunlow in one of his fields.
James Morrison/ for Marketplace

Once confined to gyms and studios, yoga pants are now widely accepted attire in many social settings, from the office to the classroom. And this rise in yoga pants as everyday clothing is contributing to a decline in the price of cotton.

“We’re seeing athleisure wear infiltrate the American wardrobe. And I think that that infiltration has only just begun,” University of Nevada, Las Vegas fashion historian Deirdre Clemente said.

A dropoff in demand for cotton has coincided with the rise in popularity of athleisure wear. That’s because most athletic wear is made out of synthetic fibers like Lycra, polyester and spandex. Clemente is not surprised. In the more than 70 year rivalry between natural and synthetic fibers, cotton has always struggled when it comes to sportswear.

“There weren’t yoga pants before there were synthetic fibers. Why? Because you couldn’t get cotton to hold your butt in like that,” she said.

But the company in charge of keeping cotton innovative knows exactly how lucrative the activewear market is right now. And it’s making a play to stay competitive.Cotton Inc. in Cary, North Carolina designs and markets new cotton products. The company recently released new cotton fabrics, made with TransDRY, that breathe and wick moisture like their synthetic competitors.

“We’re making a more performance fabric that’s intended to be able to compete with those synthetics options that are on the market,” said Mary Ankeny, vice president of product development at Cotton Inc.  

But cotton has bigger problems than athleisure wear. For instance, China is by far world’s largest cotton producing country, followed by India and the United States. And China heavily regulates its cotton industry. In 2011, when prices were at a peak of $2 a pound, China bought half the world’s cotton supply. Then it held that cotton off the market in a government reserve for three years.

“It kind of created an artificial shortage because it maintained high prices for all of 2011, 2012 and 2013,” said John Robinson, an agriculture economist at Texas A&M. “And that maintained prices higher than they would have been had those bales been in circulation.”

But in 2014, China began dumping that reserve, depressing prices and killing the export market for American cotton growers.And this was happening as U.S. cotton growers were facing problems at home. In 2015, North Carolina cotton growers, like David Dunlow, saw 17 straight days of rain followed by sunshine and warm temperatures.

“The temperatures were warm enough that the seed sprouted in the lint,” Dunlow said.That ruined the quality of the crop. Farmers in the Southeast were forced to sell their cotton at half market price, which was a devastating blow since just a year earlier, in 2014, Congress took cotton out of Title I of the Farm Bill. Title I is a guarantee that the government will pay farmers if they suffer a crop failure or a major drop in prices.

Dunlow considered quitting after the 2016 season.“Thirty years I been farming. I’d say the last two or three years I’ve really doubting whether this is what I needed to do, you know, be a quote ‘cotton farmer.’ It’s been that bad because of weather and because of the safety net not being there and prices being depressed,” he said.

But things are looking up. Dunlow thinks this year’s harvest will be better than average. And he’s cautiously optimistic Congress will put cotton back into Title I of the 2018 Farm Bill, and also notes that the House recently made that change in its recent disaster aid package. Economist John Robinson also expects China to deplete its cotton reserves in 2018, creating new demand for cotton.

So the cotton industry’s push into athleisure wear comes at a time when farmers are hoping to stretch into a newly-energized market.

Correction (Jan. 2, 2018): An earlier version of this story contained a misspelling of TransDRY.

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