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Global Perspectives > Geography in the News > COTTON’S UPS AND DOWNS
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This year has been tumultuous for global cotton prices. Cotton prices hit a 150-year high in March, but by early May prices had dropped drastically. This follows the prospect of higher yields next year and a reduction in demand by international buyers, especially China. Commodity prices can vary wildly over very short time periods, leaving local farmers in a dilemma about what and how much to plant.

Cotton is one of the most useful agricultural fibers, used mostly in the textile industries. There are a host of other uses, however, for this natural fiber.

The shrubby cotton plant is from two to six feet (0.6-1.8 m) high and is native to many subtropical regions of the world. Most cotton plants require 180-190 frost-free days to mature—quite a lengthy growing season. The white and pink flowers become pods, which in turn become bolls, or protective capsules, containing the cotton fibers and seeds. When the bolls mature, they open to expose the white cotton fibers.

Most cotton in the United States, Europe and Australia is harvested mechanically, while in developing countries, workers continue to pick cotton by hand. The harvested cotton is taken to a gin, where the fiber is separated mechanically from the seeds. Cottonseed oil is extracted for use in a variety of products from paint to margarine. The cottonseed meal left after the oil is extracted is fed to livestock as a protein supplement.

Cotton was cultivated and used by ancient people in the subtropical regions of the world. For example, the Aztecs in Central America and the Persians in Southwest Asia (Iran) cultivated different varieties of the crop. Cotton was one of the raw materials that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution in England’s textile industry in the late 1700s.

Perhaps nowhere in the world did cotton change the landscape of a region, more than in the American South. The invention of the mechanical cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney dramatically stimulated cotton production in the South. Before the invention of the gin, cotton fiber was separated from the seeds by hand, a time-consuming and labor-intensive task.

Cotton remained an important crop in the South even after the Civil War. During the 1930s, however, the boll weevil infested cotton fields across the region and forced many farmers to abandon the crop. The small south Alabama town of Enterprise has a monument to the boll weevil, the pest that forced the local farmers to diversify into cattle and other crops.

The major decline in cotton production in the United States came in the 1960s and 1970s when synthetic fibers were introduced to consumers. Demand for natural fibers dropped sharply, as synthetics were touted as the materials of the future. The United States harvested 32 million acres (13 million hectares) in 1909, but only 12.2 million (5 million hectares) by 1974 and 9 million (3.6 million hectares) in 2009. In 2011, U.S. cotton growers have planted or planned to plant approximately 12.3 million acres (5 million hectares) in cotton.

Today, Texas leads the United States in cotton production with an intended 6.2 million acres (2.5 million hectares) for 2011. Georgia is next with 1.4 million (566,560 hectares) followed by North Carolina with 694,000 acres (280,852 hectares) and Arkansas with 589,000 acres (238,360 hectares).

A bale of cotton weighs almost 480 pounds (217 kg). The world’s top cotton producer is China, with approximately 33 million bales. China is followed by India (27 million), the United States (18 million), Pakistan (10.3 million) and Brazil (9.3 million). Of course, the large textile industries in China and India consume most of the cotton grown there.

Globally, cotton cultivation is predicted to rise by 7 percent in 2011-12. That will put about 89 million new acres (36 million hectares) in the crop, driven by the record prices in 2010-11. In the United States, most of the new acreage being planted comes at the expense of corn and soybeans.

Just as cotton prices hit high levels in March, the demand for yarn and fabrics fell. Consequently, cotton prices have begun to slide once again. These up and down price fluctuations create major problems for cotton farmers, changing their decisions on which crops and how much to plant. The laws of supply and demand are paramount to basic agriculture economics, but with every year comes a wager.


The author(s)

And that is Geography in the News™. June 10, 2011. #1097.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN #204, “Cotton’s Comeback,” March 5, 1992; ; and


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