Looking out Bob Poteet's conference room window at parking lots, nothing but concrete stretching for miles in every direction, with the Dallas skyline highlighted by a backdrop of icy blue and willowy wisps of white, a visitor might not understand that Poteet is a cotton man.
The office ambience runs more to insurance or public relations than to “the fabric of our lives.”
But when Poteet talks, sometimes wistfully, of the cotton farms he still owns near Olton, Texas, and reflects back on the more than half a century he's spent in one position or another among the folks that produce, market and manufacture cotton, the visitor gets it.
Cotton has been more than a vocation for Poteet, who, after 31 years as executive director of the Texas Cotton Association, will step down in November, on his 75th birthday.
“It's getting a bit late to retire,” Poteet tells the visitor. “Maybe it's not too late.”
He's not certain what he'll do with the spare time he finds on his hands without Texas Cotton Association business to attend to daily. He says his six-year old grandson likely will take up a good chunk of time.
“I'd like to get him outside more,” Poteet says.
“I used to play golf and fish before I got married and went to work, but I'm not interested in taking up either again.”
He's traveled about as much as he wants. “But if Barbara (his wife of 49 years) wants to travel, we'll go.”
‘Pride and joy’
Mostly, he hopes to get back to those Olton farms and watch cotton crops emerge, grow, and mature on acreage he worked as a boy.
“I have a deep interest in the farms. They are my pride and joy. I've always stayed in touch with the farm operator by phone, but I'll turn it into more of a hobby when I retire. I enjoy the farm because it's my history.”
Poteet's career in cotton started early. “I grew up on the farm in Olton and I grew up fast because of the cotton industry.” He recalls that by the time he was four or five years old he rode with his dad to check fields and conduct banking and other business.
“He taught me how to check seedbeds for sprouting cotton. The bank president would always pull up a chair for me while he and dad did business. We went to the Agricultural Adjustment Act office a lot, too.”
When he was about eight his father talked his mother into allowing him to ride the knife sled behind a team of horses. “I always wanted to do things like that. By the time I was 11, I became the official truck driver. I hauled wheat to the elevators in the summer off my dad's farm and for a neighbor.”
Poteet was 13 in 1943 and got a job driving the school bus. “The school board couldn't find anyone else, so my dad, who was on the board, told them I could handle it.”
He couldn't get a drivers license until he was 14 and then only a restricted one.
“But during the War folks did what they had to do,” he says.
Talking to Poteet the visitor realizes that if he pays close attention he'll get a pretty good lesson in the history of cotton production and marketing over the past 65 years, especially Texas cotton.
Horses into ‘30s
Poteet says his dad farmed with horses into the 1930s. “We worked two teams until 1936, when dad bought his first tractor, an F-20 Farmall. In 1940 he bought a four-row John Deere with a starter and lights. We had it delivered in June with equipment that was unassembled. I was assigned to put the four-row cultivators together. I had to bolt everything in place. Dad showed me how to get started but he was busy with other things, so I finished it.”
Poteet recalls the 1949 cotton crop, the biggest on record for the state at 6,040,000 bales. “I had to get home from school in Lubbock as early as possible on Friday to hook up a trailer and drive south as far as I had to go to find a cotton gin that could take our cotton. Sometimes I drove 180 miles.”
He says a lot of the Texas crop as it was harvested was put up in ricks on farms because gins couldn't keep up and the farmer's trailers were tied up. Gins on the High Plains operated into April that year.
Mechanical harvesting, Poteet says, marks one of the biggest changes he's seen in cotton production. “Mechanical harvest was just beginning in 1949, but folks were still pulling some cotton by 1956.”
Development of herbicides and then herbicide tolerant cotton varieties revolutionized weed control, he says.
“Irrigation also brought big changes to Texas cotton. We started adding irrigation back in the 1940s and 1950s. Farmers who had struggled to make half-a-bale per acre made one to one-and-a-half bales or more with irrigation. That was the cheapest way to expand: put water on cotton.”
Poteet says irrigation paid for a lot of farm boys' educations. “When I went to Texas Tech (He graduated in 1955 after his education was interrupted by a two-year tour with the Army.), the farm boys were actually better off than most of the kids from town.”
Cotton modules also changed the cotton industry, Poteet says. “That started in the early 1980s.”
Improved varieties, especially Roundup Ready and Bollgard cotton also serve as benchmark achievements for cotton farmers. “Transgenic varieties take the pressure off cotton farmers,” Poteet says. “They now have a system that allows them to kill weeds and not the cotton.” They also have fewer worries about insect damage.
Poteet, who has spent much of his career working with cotton market systems, says high volume instrumentation (HVI) and the subsequent switch to electronic marketing, “revolutionized cotton trading. Electronic warehouse receipts and transmitting classing information and bills of lading electronically streamline export sales.
“A lot of cotton is sold over the Internet. It doesn't matter if the commodity exists on the other side of the world or on the other side of the street.”
He says changes in the discount rate for High Plains cotton also helps West Texas growers. “At one time Lubbock area cotton was discounted heavily. Now, High Plains cotton takes only a 400 to 500 point hit, compared to 1,000 points off the futures market before 1990. Average loan rate in the area this year has been 51.60 cents.”
Poteet says the loss of the U.S. domestic market makes farmers and the entire industry “vulnerable. Also, we're sometimes at the mercy of foreign customers' governments.”
He says reduced tillage made huge inroads into cotton production, allowing farmers to use less fuel and labor and conserve soil and water. “We will see more of it,” he says.
Poteet has witnessed too many peaks and valleys in the cotton industry over the past 60 plus years to harbor much of a pessimistic view for the future.
“Even though we're losing some of our market share to synthetic fibers, the total amount of cotton usage will continue to go up,” he predicts. “Our percent of the fabric market may decrease but the demand for fiber is increasing at a faster pace. I think the market will continue to offer ample demand for the world's cotton supply.”
He says the Chinese, who have become key players in both production and consumption of cotton and other fibers, will not convert large scale to polyester.
“It will become an economic issue. As incomes increase, as they are across Asia and especially in China, the people will demand the comfort of cotton as opposed to lower cost but less comfortable polyester.”
Poteet says Brazil figures to pose the biggest threat to oversupply. “Brazil has an immense production area and can increase cotton production significantly. They will plant what they can make money with.”
He says subsidies also weigh on the cotton industry. “If other countries agree to reduce or eliminate all subsidies, the United States will have to follow suit and farmers will find ways to produce cotton even more efficiently to compete with workers who have a lower standard of living.”
Poteet says cotton survived numerous crises over decades. His first job in the cotton industry, other than on the farm, was with Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., (PCG). He helped organize PCG back in 1956, after convincing the first executive director, George Pfiefenberger, that he needed help. “I told him he needed help, so we had a cup of coffee and he agreed and hired me. We worked hard putting the organization together.”
Poteet says they signed up 70 percent of the 400 cotton gins then operating in the High Plains.
“From September until Thanksgiving, we signed members,” Poteet says. “I set myself a goal of 24 ginners to call on every day. I started at daybreak and visited until after dark.”
He says the effort was so successful the organization earned an award from the American Society of Association Executives.
Poteet worked for PCG four years and then took a job with the Lubbock Cotton Exchange.
Moved to Memphis
He moved to Memphis in 1970 to work with the American Cotton Shippers Association as vice president for special projects and as executive vice president for the Southern Cotton Association and Atlantic Cotton Association. He visited each office of members in the nine states covered by the two associations.
“Moving to Memphis was hard after living on the High Plains all my life, but I worked with some very good people,” he says.
He assumed his present job with the Texas Cotton Association in 1973. “My daughter Kandice has worked with me a little over 10 years,” he says.
Poteet farmed on his own for two years after he got out of the army and finished Texas Tech. His second crop was hailed out, prompting him to seek employment with PCG. He took over one of the family farms after lightning killed his father. He also bought a farm near Abernathy “the first year with PCG. I operated both farms until I moved to Memphis.”
Poteet says his farm experience proved to be a valuable asset in his association work. “I was accustomed to hard work, for one thing,” he says. “Farm life in the 1930s and 40s, demanded a lot of hard work, but I never burned out on it. I loved the farm.
“But I also developed an in-depth knowledge of the entire cotton industry. I understood the positions of various segments of the industry and could relate farmer to farmer.”
With TCA he works mostly with the movement of cotton, and deals with warehouse, transportation, banking and political issues in Austin and Washington, D.C.
He says he's proud of the reputation Texas has for timely movement of cotton to market and how each Texas faction works in cooperation. He says flow meetings have made the process run much smoother. Flow meetings allow most everyone in the industry to look at production, warehouse and transportation issues and determine ways to improve efficiency.
“Understanding the warehouse capabilities, for instance, helps trucking firms schedule transportation,” he says.
Electronic business, Poteet says, improves data flow and streamlines cotton marketing.
The visitor couldn't help but muse about the epic changes Poteet witnessed throughout his career in cotton. As he left the TCA downtown Dallas offices he reflected on the progress Poteet has witnessed and on a time when efficient flow meant how far Poteet had to drive on Friday afternoons to find a gin that could handle his cotton.