Every year, cotton is grown on 300,000 to 500,000 acres in North Carolina. Cotton is grown primarily by commercial growers who utilize large equipment to plant, manage, and harvest the crop on several hundred to a few thousand acres. These growers use large-scale commercial gins to process, package, and ship harvested cotton to final end users across the globe. Each year there are several “non-grower” citizens who express interest in growing cotton for decorative or ornamental purposes; as a nectar source for honey bees; and for educational, agritourism, or display reasons, novelty, or other atypical commercial uses such as floral arrangements and home décor. These individuals may not be familiar with the usual regulatory processes that commercial growers know well. Several inquiries are made each year from citizens to Extension specialists or local Extension agents about regulations and how a non-farmer can grow cotton on a small scale. This publication outlines the steps and procedures that one must follow to grow cotton for alternative purposes.
Regulatory Compliance and Approval
The first step is that individuals should contact the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) plant pest specialist for their area or region. Visit NCDA&CS’s Plant Pest Specialists' Geographical Work Areas page to find the names, contact information, and regions for NCDA plant pest specialists.
This is important because NCDA&CS needs to be aware of all cotton grown in the state of North Carolina for the trapping and monitoring necessary to prevent any re-establishment of the boll weevil. Boll weevils were a very problematic insect pest for several years in North Carolina and across the US that devastated the US cotton industry. With the success of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, boll weevils have been eradicated from North Carolina since the late 1990s, and currently exist only within the US along the Mexico border.
The eradication program in North Carolina is now in a monitoring phase, which includes traps strategically placed in close proximity to all cotton planted within the state. This is important for the rare case that a wild weevil has been transported from out of state and becomes established in North Carolina cotton. All cotton, grown both commercially or otherwise, must be monitored. With individuals who wish to grow cotton for non-commercial or atypical purposes, the plant pest specialist will evaluate the individual’s case and reasons for atypical cotton production and document the specific location in which cotton will be grown. The specialist will issue a compliance agreement, and a boll weevil trapping schedule. The compliance agreement with the owner/grower states that NCDA&CS will trap the plot for boll weevils and ensures that the grower understands the limitations on the plot.
The NCDA&CS’s standard cotton Compliance Agreement stipulates that:
- Cotton plants must be destroyed no later than November 30 in the year being grown. If plants are not destroyed by this date, the plants may be destroyed at the discretion of the NCDA&CS.
- The cooperator must agree to the placement of a boll weevil trap within 10 ft of the cotton plants.
- The cooperator must agree to limit the production of cotton plants to less than 1 acre. In addition, NCDA&CS must be granted access in order to place and check the boll weevil trap(s). The NCDA&CS may add additional stipulations if there are special circumstances that might increase the risk or need to be addressed to prevent the introduction of a new boll weevil.
- Cotton grown for floral or decorative purposes such as floral arrangements, boutonnières, or wreaths may include multiple plant parts such as roots, stalks, branches, leaves, burrs, seed cotton (lint and seed), and bracts. Any commercial sale or movement of such products out-of-state requires a certificate of origin, issued by NCDA&CS, for transit.
This process is designed to protect the non-typical grower, as well as the commercial producer. In fact, the process protects the entire cotton industry within North Carolina and beyond. This process is not costly or cumbersome, and should be taken seriously. All interested individuals must abide by all regulations.
Beyond questions about any potential regulations for growing cotton for atypical purposes, consumers often ask about how a non-farmer can purchase some seed. Commercial cotton seed is sold in 50 lb bags that contain 220,000 to 230,000 seeds, which is sufficient to plant 5 to 5.5 acres at the recommended commercial seeding rates. Quantities of seed smaller than a 50 lb bag are very difficult or almost impossible to find.
Traited/genetically modified organisms (GMO) seed: Seed for nearly all modern cotton varieties includes genetic traits that convey tolerance to one or more herbicides (glyphosate, glufosinate, 2,4-D, or dicamba). These traits include Bt traits that are tolerant to caterpillar insects such as cotton bollworm. Newer technology, which will be released soon, will include traits that convey tolerance to lygus insects and thrips. These traits have been achieved in most varieties by biotechnology and advanced breeding techniques. Most seed sold for commercial purposes also contains a base fungicide seed treatment in addition to insecticide for thrips or nematodes, unless otherwise requested. Seed of varieties that include these traits can be costly (usually $500 to $600 per bag). In addition, seed of this type is sold under a licensing agreement, which states that the seed cannot be sold to other persons or entities, nor can the seed produced from the planted crop be saved and planted in subsequent years by the buyer.
Non-traited/conventional seed: There are several commercially available conventional (non-GMO) varieties, but these can be difficult to locate and are not commonly sold or planted for commercial purposes. These seed are generally much less expensive ($100 to $200 per bag), although they require labor intensive weed management that uses multiple directly applied herbicides or cultivation, as well as frequent sprays with insecticides for caterpillar pests and other insects. Growers of both traited and conventional cotton should utilize the Cotton Information production guide or they can contact their local Extension agent for production information on weed and insect management. This is important because management practices for traited and conventional cotton are vastly different. Some of the primary cotton seed companies may offer conventional seed on a limited basis. In many cases, requests for conventional seed require notification a year in advance or prepayment of seed, so that the seed can be produced. The seed companies in Table 1 sell primarily traited seed but may offer some conventional seed as well. Some companies listed below produce and sell only conventional seed.
Table 1: Seed Companies, Seed Brands, and Seed Types
|Company/Manufacturer||Seed Brand Name||Web Address||Seed Type|
|Bayer CropScience||Deltapine||Deltapine Varieties||Traited and Conventional|
|Corteva||Phytogen||PhytoGen Cotton Varieties||Traited|
|Dyna-Gro Cotton Seed Finder
|Traited and Conventional|
|Seed Source Genetics||Seed Source Genetics||Seed Source Genetics||Conventional|
Harvesting and Ginning
Another consideration for growing cotton for alternative or atypical commercial purposes is the issue of harvesting. A small planted area of a few acres or less can be hand-harvested depending on labor limitations, or when the cotton grown for ornamental or decorative purposes will not require harvesting lint. Cotton grown for educational or demonstration purposes can be mechanically destroyed in the fall if harvesting is not desired. Machine harvesters are required when harvesting seed cotton (non-ginned cotton lint containing seed) is desired for large areas of more than an acre or two. The cost of a machine spindle-type picker would not be economically feasible for planted areas smaller than several hundred acres. Thus, the only harvesting option would be paying for a custom harvester, who would be a nearby commercial cotton farmer with a harvester. Subsequently, seed cotton would need to be ginned, which is the process of separating seed from lint, cleaning the lint, and packaging into commercially sized bales, which weigh approximately 500 lb. A minimum of 1 to 2 acres would be needed to harvest one 500 lb bale of lint.
Commercial gins generally send trucks to commercial cotton fields to transport the harvested seed cotton back to the gin. Commercially harvested seed cotton is packed into large rectangular modules that weigh 17,000 to 23,000 lb (14 to 18 bales of lint), or in plastic-covered round modules that weigh approximately 5,000 lb (4 bales of lint). Commercial gins cannot effectively or economically transport smaller quantities of cotton, and it is nearly impossible to transport cotton that is not packed into modules. Therefore, growers who grow cotton for alternative purposes must transport their own cotton to a gin. In addition, because it is difficult for gins to completely segregate and then separately gin a small amount of seed cotton, gins that are willing to gin smaller amounts of cotton usually require delivery as soon as the ginning begins in the fall, or at the very end of the ginning season, which is usually late fall and before the gin closes for the year. A grower of cotton for alternative purposes who wishes to harvest and gin their cotton should contact the closest gin to discuss potential arrangements for ginning before they buy the seed or plant the crop.
Publication date: May 18, 2022
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