By Alexe van Beuren
Gaylon Booker knows a lot about cotton. He should; after all, he grew up in Water Valley and married the daughter of a local cotton farmer and ginner.
Of course, he’s also spent 46 years working at the National Cotton Council.
The National Cotton Council is a trade association that represents American farmers, ginners, warehousers, merchants, and textile manufacturers. It has over 20,000 members and about 90 employees.
Booker has been one such employee since 1961 – beginning as a market analyst and rising through the ranks to serve as the President/CEO from 2001 to 2003.
His path to the National Cotton Council from Water Valley didn’t take long. After graduating from Water Valley High School, Booker went to Northwest College on a football scholarship and then decided “to get my military obligation out of the way.”
After two years of service, Booker returned to college – and Elsie.
“We’ve dated from the time we were old enough to date,” Booker tells me as we sit in the living room of his home out near Enid Lake. “She was a south-ender and I was a north-ender,” Booker says. “That used to mean something to people around here,” and he smiles.
After marrying and moving to Memphis, Booker finished his college education at Memphis State University while Elsie worked as a teacher. Immediately after graduating, Gaylon began working for the National Cotton Council.
Nearly five decades later, Gaylon and Elsie are still married – and he still works for the National Cotton Council.
Things have not stayed quite so constant in the cotton industry.
“Cotton acreage was cut back to about twenty-five percent this last spring,” says Booker. He seems resigned. “It’ll be down again in spring of 2008. Farmers are getting higher prices for other crops.”
Booker doesn’t blame farmers for growing the crops that command the higher prices. On the other hand, Booker says, “I hear a lot of criticism of the cotton industry about the subsidies it receives. I don’t hear the same criticism of the biofuel subsidies.”
Booker hopes that the fields of corn and soybeans, which are subsidized by the government for the purpose of biofuel, will return to cotton. “It depends on how committed the US government is to subsidizing an unsustainable industry,” Booker says. “Farmers can go back and forth between crops for a number of years, but if gins have to close, getting that infrastructure going again will be hard.”
Cotton faces bigger problems than that of other crops. We’ve all seen the clothes for sale at Wal-Mart, and most of us have noted that all the tags that read “Made in China.”
“In 1997, US textile mills consumed 11 million bales of US cotton,” Booker says. He’s not looking at a book or referring to notes– he knows these figures cold. “This year, they’ll consume 5 million bales.”
The U.S. textile mills aren’t the ones buying US cotton anymore. Booker tells me that the Chinese buy nearly 90 percent of the U.S. cotton crop. “The competition isn’t Chinese cotton, but Chinese textiles,” Booker says.
“Can’t they grow their own cotton cheaper over there?” I ask, and Booker shakes his head.
“They prefer ours,” he tells me, and then explains. Despite the fact that China produces more cotton than anyone else in the world, they’re not growing it on big farms; cotton is still hand-picked by families and laid on porches and in barns, where it gets slept on by dogs, cats, and other animals. “Our cotton is less contaminated,” Booker says.
Booker brings up subsidies again when he talks about the cotton situation in China. “Until the rest of the world stops subsidizing,” he says, “It’ll be awfully hard for the US to stop.” He tells me that he’s counted at least 73 subsidies that the Chinese government provides for cotton farmers– including providing land, seed, and fertilizer.
Working for the US Cotton Council has taken Gaylon Booker all over the world. He’s visited Peru, Taipei, and Indonesia, to name a few places. He was asked to consult for the Chinese (and turned them down); he’s served on the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee and reported to the President and Congress.
But as Booker eases slowly into retirement, he’s begun splitting time between his longtime home in Germantown and the house that he and Elsie built on family land near Enid Lake. He takes me out to the porch, which overlooks a large pond, and tells me about his grandsons who tear around the water on fourwheelers.
Of course, inside the house is a small sleek laptop. Booker has been updating the history of the National Cotton Council, and because of the new Farm Bill, his deadline has been extended.
“I may have to work longer than I thought,” Booker says, and smiles.