I had hoped my recent trip to Virginia would coincide with the cotton harvest, but I missed by a few days. When wind and rain is forecast, cotton farmers work overtime as quality of the crop diminishes quickly in poor weather. When I arrived at my parent’s farm earlier this week, gray skies lingered, but fields had been gleaned just ahead of the storm.
Soon after the harvest.
Looking across the land that has belonged in his family for generations, my stepfather notes that today’s machines leave as much cotton on the ground as was realized from a harvest when he was a boy.
Just up the road, five cotton modules — shaped like giant loaves of bread and weighing as much as 25,000 pounds each — wait for transport to Mid-Atlantic Gin.
Ready for the cotton gin.
Before ginning, cotton is dried to remove excess moisture and then cleaned of leaves and other unwanted debris. Lint is separated from seeds through a mechanical system of blades and blasts of air that force the fibers through closely-spaced ribs. Pressed into 500-pound bales and classed by USDA standards, the cotton is graded according to fiber strength, length, length uniformity, fineness, color, and the measure of non-fiber content. Since cotton is a non-perishable crop, it can be stored rather than sold if the price is too low.
For every 100 pounds of fiber, cotton also produces more than 160 pounds of seed.
Teased apart, you can see this 1/4 boll contains 7 seeds.
Roughly 5% of the seed is retained for planting, but the remaining is processed. Hulls are removed from kernels, which are then pressed for oil, cotton’s most valuable byproduct. The remaining meat of the kernel is converted into meal for livestock and poultry. As most gardeners know, cotton meal is also an excellent natural fertilizer.
Cotton production in Southern states began growing in the mid 1990s as prices soared in response to demand from the clothing industry, especially Asian makers. Today, it’s estimated that farmers can pocket $200 to $500 more per acre from cotton than staple food crops such as soybeans, corn, and wheat. Once called “King,” cotton is again credited with saving untold farms and farmers of the region.
On my return trip to South Carolina, I passed many fields waiting for the cotton combine, such as this one wrapped in a halo of thick fog.
Field of cotton on a foggy morning in November.
Whether you consider it good or bad, the song “Dixie” and “land of cotton” is forever linked to Southern culture and history. The song was, in fact, a favorite of President Lincoln. “Dixie” was played at some of his political rallies, and to demonstrate his willingness and eagerness for reconciliation it was played at the White House on April 10, 1865, after the announcement of General Lee’s surrender on the morning of April 9 at Appomattox Court House.
Many Southerners of my era will agree “Dixie,” such as the version found here, was best sung by Elvis.