SNOW ON THE VERGE: Cotton from the Central Highlands is exported.
SNOW ON THE VERGE: Cotton from the Central Highlands is exported. Lindy Lewis

What's in your pair of jeans?

WELL, it's 2018 and this is the first column of the year. I hope you all had a safe and happy end to 2017 and that 2018 has started with what promises to be a good year.

It's that time when visitors all seem to ask the same question, "What is that 'snow' that adorns the road verges?” and "what are those huge yellow covered bales that seem to grow overnight on the outskirts of Emerald?”.

For locals, we all know that it's cotton harvest time but, for an outsider unaware of our cotton industry, the following facts and figures show just what the cotton industry means to the local economy. Who knows? Maybe locals will learn a thing or two also.

What's this got to do with tourism? I hear you ask.

Like coal, sapphires, cattle and sandstone ridges and ranges, cotton is just another chapter in the story that we have to tell.

Cotton is the number one irrigated crop grown on the Central Highlands and accounts for five per cent of the national cotton crop.

With improved growing practices and seed varieties, the region has an expectation to increase its production and value to more than $100 million this harvest.

Like most businesses in the region, where the norm is smaller scale or family owned businesses, the 30 plus cotton growers in the Central Highlands are mostly family owned with a number of large scale corporations having invested in the region as growers.

On average between 14,000 hectares and 25,400 hectares are planted to irrigated cotton, 60 per cent of the total irrigation area.

In this day and age, technology is becoming more rampant across all aspects of life and it's not surprising that the cotton industry has embraced it to maximise the entire cotton growing activity. This is used right across the cotton growing process, from soil preparation, weather monitoring and irrigation control.

So this brings us to the seemingly overnight expansion of the yellow jacketed bales that appear at the two cotton gins located at Emerald and just east at Yamala.

The gins process the seed cotton from growers into baled lint ready to be spun into yarn. To give you an idea of capacity and volume, the gin located at Yamala processes 1100 bales per day and the Emerald gin slightly less at 700 bales per day.

Bales, bales, bales, what's in a bale, other than cotton? I'm glad you asked. Well, to put a bale into perspective, in 2017 around 185,000 bales of cotton were processed in the Central Highlands.

If you were to make jeans from all this cotton then you would make 50 million pairs, regardless of the jeans being straight legged, skinny cut, long cut, stone washed or just plain blue denim.

So where does our cotton go? Local ginned cotton is exported to China (42%) Indonesia (14%), Vietnam (11%) and Bangladesh (9%).

The remaining 24% is spread across smaller and somewhat opportunistic markets but it's interesting to note that all the cotton ginned in the Central Highlands is exported.

A by-product of the ginning process is cotton seed, of which the Central Highlands produces about 35,000 tonnes annually.

The majority is sold as supplementary cattle rations and, in some seasons, is exported. The value of the cotton seed production is $2million, not a bad return for what is considered a by-product.

So there you go. The story of cotton in a few lines and the next time someone asks about the "snow” on the roadside, or you see cotton growing in the paddock, or indeed, as you walk down Edgerton Street in your flash new straight legged, stone washed, skinny cut jeans wear them proudly.

The chances are they came from the Central Highlands, our very own backyard.

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