The Supima Association of America will be celebrating its 50th year of operation next year. The association and the U.S. Pima cotton industry have experienced significant change over the past 50 years, but the last 25 years have brought the most growth in terms of production and market share.

U.S. Pima production has averaged 571,000 bales annually the past five years, compared to just 79,800 bales a year from 1973 — 1977. At that time the U.S. Pima industry was a relatively obscure cottage industry catering to a small but steady domestic market. All that was about to change in the early 1980s. First, Supima moved its headquarters from El Paso, Texas to Phoenix, Ariz., in 1978 after merging with the Arizona Cotton Seed Distributors. The Seed Distributors was responsible for growing, maintaining and selling certified Pima planting seed to Pima producers in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

During this time, Supima had a partnership with the USDA's Arizona based Pima Improvement Program and, having merged with the seed distributors, was the sole supplier of certified planting seed to producers. Because the Pima cotton industry was so small at the time, commercial seed companies were not particularly interested in developing and maintaining Pima cotton seed varieties, making Supima's involvement necessary. As the industry grew in the late 1980s and acreage expanded, commercial companies became interested in varietal developments for Pima. As a result, Supima sold its seed division to Delta & Pine Land Co. in 1993.

The outlook for the industry's growth didn't look promising in 1978 or in the early 1980s. Most of the finer yarn production that consumed large quantities of ELS cotton was in Asia and Europe, and American Pima was virtually unknown or had a poor reputation in these markets.

It was at this time that Supima began a major promotional effort in both Asia and Europe. The initial efforts were not encouraging for several reasons. First, foreign mills knew almost nothing about American Pima cotton, as handpicked Egyptian cotton dominated the world trade for Extra-Long Staple cotton. In addition, U.S. production averaged less than 80,000 bales annually; sometimes less than 60,000 bales during which the domestic industry consumed most of this production. The carryover was small and not adequate for foreign mills to justify interest.

Three major developments occurred in the early ‘80s that began to change the global ELS cotton landscape. The first was Pima's entrance in the export market as a few major fine count spinning mills overseas began to use American Pima on a regular basis. The second was the abolishment of the allotment system and the third, was the 1983 release of the USDA/Supima-developed Pima S-6 variety, a higher yielding variety.

American Pima cotton was an allotment crop until 1983. The USDA adjusted these “franchises” annually depending on expected demand, so each state's allotment and individual grower allotments could vary from year to year. The USDA at the time was strongly opposed to allotments and began the process to change the law. After months of discussion with USDA officials and others in Washington, Supima finally agreed to support the USDA, and the allotments were removed in 1983. This decision has since paved the way for increased production and a large world market for American Pima cotton.

In 1981 a small Japanese spinner became interested in the Supima name and trademark. This company became the first Supima licensee and was successful in making the name known in Japan. At approximately the same time a Switzerland based company began to use American Pima cotton. This was a big departure for a high quality Swiss spinner, as Egyptian cotton was the major fiber for all Swiss, Italian and other fine count yarn mills. This encouraged other fine spinners in Europe to also try this new ELS cotton known as American Pima or Supima.

American Pima was machine harvested rather than handpicked. It didn't look as smooth as Egyptian cotton, but mills soon learned that U.S. Pima had excellent fiber properties and made quality yarn.

In the mid-to-late ‘80s Supima made numerous visits to Japan and other foreign markets discussing the merits of American Pima cotton. These visits and Supima's higher profile in attending U.S. and foreign meetings and events began to pay dividends. Supima was soon approached by one of the largest mills in Japan requesting a Supima license. This was followed by almost all of the major mills in Japan. Pima consumption began to increase drastically in Japan from less than 3,000 bales per year to over 100,000 per year.

Production gains

The Japanese textile companies helped to make the Supima brand well recognized and known in Japan and other Asian countries.

During this period from 1978 until the late ‘80s, Pima production increased from 94,000 bales to almost 700,000 bales in 1989. Arizona dominated production during this period. In 1989, Arizona accounted for 245,000 acres of the total 377,000 acres and 70 percent of the total production of 692,000 bales. New gins were built and existing roller gins were expanded to keep up with the tremendous growth of Pima cotton in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.

In 1988/89 Pima prices advanced to near record levels of up to $1.60 per pound for a short period. This was due to a relatively tight global ELS cotton supply, strong demand for American Pima, and continued high prices for Egyptian cotton. These attractive Pima prices caught the attention of growers in other states, especially California's San Joaquin Valley, which has similar climate conditions for Pima cotton production. At that time, California had a one variety law that prohibited other qualities or only approved Acala varieties to be grown in California. However, experimental varieties were allowed and Pima varieties were quickly added to California's cotton testing program.

Variety law amended

Some California growers were allowed to grow limited quantities of Pima on a government-controlled experimental basis. As expected, the yields were equal to and, in some cases, exceeded yields of the SJV Acala varieties, and the fiber quality was also excellent.

California's one variety law was amended in 1990 to allow Pima to be produced commercially in the San Joaquin Valley in 1991. Pima production in California has increased from zero in 1986 to about 580,000 bales this past season. California is now producing approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. Pima crop.

During the same period California was entering the market, Arizona's Pima production was going in the opposite direction. From 477,000 bales in 1989 to just 16,000 bales in 2002, Arizona Pima producers have gone from providing more than three-fourths of the U.S. crop to about 5 percent.

The economics of Pima has just not worked for most growers in Arizona. Typically, Central Arizona Pima growers will yield about 70 percent to 75 percent of their upland with Pima, while California Pima growers have yielded an average of about 93 percent of the San Joaquin Acala varieties. Production in Texas and New Mexico has remained relatively stable during this period.

While Pima production continued to expand through the 1990s, so too did Supima's licensing program, especially in the past three years. The branding and licensing program has been a major success and now helps to drive demand for American Pima cotton. The concept for the program has been and continues to be built upon quality and integrity of the Supima name and brand. Supima's objective is to allow the name to be associated with only high-end textile products that are sold in high quality stores and catalogs. The name must have an added value to our licensee or it will be of no value to them.

Two years ago Supima initiated a $1,000 annual licensing fee to defray some of the costs of operating the program, including the legal registration throughout the world. The fee has not thawed interest in the program. Today we have 100 foreign and 27 domestic licensees and others pending. Each request is reviewed carefully.

Who knows what the next 25 years will bring? But as long as American Pima cotton producers continue to supply the world's high end spinning mills with the highest possible quality ELS cotton fiber, the Supima story may only get better.