Cotton's rich heritage could pull it through

Carryover stocks at staggering levels. Prices below the cost of production. Cotton acreage poised to increase despite the low prices. While those phrases seem to sum up the situation faced by cotton producers in 2001, they could just as easily describe another year of crisis - 1933.

With the U.S. economy mired in the Depression, the U.S. carryover in 1933 was expected to exceed 12 million bales. Cotton was selling for 6 cents per pound. Even so, 1933 acreage was expected to increase 7 percent over 1932.

To put the price into perspective - 6 cents then might be higher than 65 cents now when adjusted for inflation - farmers sold cotton for 18 cents in 1929. For most of the 1920s, cotton futures traded between 15 and 25 cents.

This was the situation when the Roosevelt administration took office in March of 1933. There was no shortage of economic worries to deal with, but the 40 million persons then involved in cotton commanded some attention.

To help address the problems, the administration tapped Oscar G. Johnston, president of Delta and Pine Land Co., to become finance director of the newly organized Agricultural Adjustment Administration.

Although Oscar G. Johnston is not a household word today, in the 1920s and 30s, his was one of the best known names in the cotton business.

Born in Jackson, Miss., Johnston grew up in the Mississippi Delta town of Friars Point. After studying law, he set up practice and began investing in farmland. He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives for 10 years, and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1919 before leaving politics to focus on business.

In 1927, Johnston became president of Scott, Miss.-based Delta and Pine Land, then a 38,000-acre operation owned by the Fine Cotton Spinners and Doublers Association of Manchester, England.

One of Johnston's first tasks in Washington was to deal with 2 million bales of cotton that had come into the government's hands. He eventually disposed of those at a profit through the creation of the Federal Cotton Pool.

Meanwhile, farmers faced another winter of low prices when they harvested the estimated 40 million acres of cotton planted in 1933. Johnston devised a program that enabled farmers to place their cotton in a non-recourse loan at 10 cents per pound if they agreed to sign a 1934-35 acreage reduction contract.

In doing so, Johnston helped create the Commodity Credit Corp., the organization that continues to play a major role in stabilizing farm prices today.

While many observers felt that Johnston's actions with AAA helped save the U.S. cotton industry in the 1930s, he realized that the federal government could not solve all of cotton's woes.

In 1938, Johnston and William Rhea Blake, executive director of the Delta Council, helped organize the National Cotton Council. They envisioned it as both a lobbying group and a research and promotion arm for cotton.

No one can predict what will happen in cotton over the next few months. Some are saying low prices could prevail for years. But, it's a safe bet that the holders of Oscar Johnston's legacy will be in there fighting for cotton until a solution can be found.

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