Cotton may not be king in North Carolina anymore, but an agricultural expert says it's making its way back into the royal house of the state's farm economy.

North Carolina farmers are expected to harvest about 200,000 acres of cotton this year, up nearly 80 percent from 1989. And that figure could climb as high as 400,000 by next year, said David Guthrie, a crop scientist at North Carolina State University.Although cotton's main insect enemy, the boll weevil, has been eradicated from the state since the late 1970s, growers are just beginning to respond by growing more of the crop. That's been largely due to the high cost of building a modern cotton gin: about $1.5 million.

Three new gins began operating this year, in Trenton, Goldsboro and Spivey's Corner.

``I think the explosion you're seeing is that initial pioneers are making that investment,' Guthrie said.

But a stronger enticement to growers has been profit, Guthrie said.

The price of cotton is roughly 70 cents per pound. But North Carolina farmers can make a profit when the price is as low as 55 cents per pound, Guthrie said.

Bill Lalor of Cotton Inc. agrees. Lalor, vice president of the cotton growers research and marketing company, says the increasing popularity of natural fibers in clothing has reduced the industry's surplus of cotton and pushed the price of the fiber up.

``In 1975, cotton was in 35 percent of garments,' Lalor said. ``Today, it's more than 53 percent.'

Dry weather has also has played a role in bringing cotton back. Guthrie said most of the calls he gets asking for more information about cotton growing come from eastern North Carolina counties with dry soils and weather.

Cotton is the perfect crop for this type of environment because it has a long flowering period - seven weeks, compared with two for corn.

``In our sandy soils, there are going to be periods of prolonged drought,' Guthrie said. ``Cotton because of its prolonged flowering period has the ability to hunker down and come out of a drought and still have a crop at the end of it.'

Guthrie thinks North Carolina could produce a little more than a bale - enough for 300 pairs of blue jeans - for each of the 400,000 acres it puts in cotton. That's a far cry from Texas, the nation's top cotton state, which churns out about 5 million bales from 5 million acres of cotton a year. It's also a long way from the 2 million acres North Carolina grew annually as late as the 1920s.

Guthrie says the return of cotton to the agricultural aristocracy will be nothing but good news for farmers hurt by drought and the fluctuating price of grains.

``By cotton reemerging it creates another means by which farmers can stay profitable and stay in business,' he said.

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