Land of Cotton, Part 3

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

32 thoughts on “Land of Cotton, Part 3

  1. Carolyn Moseley

    Marian, Thank you for this story and the pictures today. My grandparents and their siblings were cotton farms in Honea Path, SC. It is very dear to my heart. Carolyn

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Carolyn–My grandparents grew cotton before I was born, but I’ve never seen it in production until a corporate farmer recently begain renting my stepfather’s land. I’ve been very interested in following the crop this season and it’s been a pleasure to share what little I’ve learned with others.

      Reply
  2. tarheel dreamer

    Marian, Brilliant series. Very informative and I felt your heart in the words. Thanks for bringing the past into the present. I loved, loved the Elvis link! Teresa

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Teresa–I couldn’t resist Elvis! To be honest, I’m a little young to be a fan, but I’ll never forget how crazy my aunts and older cousins were for his music and movies.

      Reply
  3. Julie

    Hi Marian, this is fascinating, I wonder how it was originally discovered this plant could be transformed into cotton for clothing. Interesting too the productive use of the seed as a by product. Farmers are under such pressure, this must by a welcome bonus.

    Reply
  4. gardeninacity

    I enjoyed this post. I have actually worked in cotton fields during my time living in Israel. I was surprised by how ornamental, large, and delicate the flowers were in early summer.

    Reply
      1. gardeninacity

        It does need some irrigation, like most crops in the region. This was in the Huleh Valley north of the Sea of Galilee which has more water than most of the country.

  5. Martha Robinson

    I remember picking cotton by hand (for fun) a day in my childhood. Was SO hard and back breaking. We are a very lucky generation!

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Martha–I worked in tobacco once, but not cotton. I never liked field work of any kind, so luckily I turned out to be a good cook and after the age of 12 was given full charge of the kitchen instead.

      Reply
  6. Teri Clark

    Marion, my mother-in-law grew cotton in her back yard garden every year to show the grand kids what her family made a living by. Guess I need to carry on the tradition. How viable are 20plus year old cotton seeds as I have some of her cotton in a basket? Thanks for taking the time to send these posts!

    Reply
  7. Gloria Ballard

    Marian, thanks for providing all that information. I’ve only seen one or two cotton plants up close, growing in a garden — just enough to enjoy their interesting flowers for a few days. I’m glad to learn so much more.

    Reply
  8. Dana Harper

    Hi Marian, I love cotton fields and really appreciated the article and pictures. Besides loving the fields, I use cottonseed meal as an organic fertilizer. It’s usually sold as 5-2-2 or 5-2-1 so it’s hard to overuse and burn the plants. The only problem with it is that Southern States is the only supplier around and they always run out!

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Susie–I’ve seen cotton all my life but didn’t have a connection until now. When I was little, my grandfather grew tobacco, and later it was peanuts. My stepfather had switched from peanuts to soybeans before he retired, but this is the first cotton grown on family land in my lifetime.

      Reply
  9. Cathy

    Such an interesting series Marian! I know so little about cotton growing and now have an insight into this important plant and crop. Thanks for sharing, and I love that photo of the cotton field on a foggy day!

    Reply
  10. Christina

    Thank you for this really interesting post. I’ve never seen cotton growing, it seems a very exotic crop to me. Why are the new machines so inefficient at harvesting the cotton?

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Christina–When you see cotton left on the ground, it does seem like a lot of waste, but I’m sure machine picking is many times more cost effective. Also, I think part of my stepfather’s point is that the plants produce a lot more cotton due to better management.

      Reply
  11. Pauline

    Thank you for an interesting post, I had never understood before how cotton was transformed into thread, now I understand the first process! The north of England where we used to live had lots of cotton mills where the raw cotton, imported into Liverpool from America, was made into cloth.

    Reply
  12. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Pauline–There was a period of time when we had our own textile mills in the South. Now we’re shipping the cotton to Asia; they can make the cloth and clothing cheaper than we can because of low wages. Some of the old mills around here are being converted into condos or repurposed for other uses.

    Reply
  13. Anita Humphries

    Loved this post (as well as the earlier ones). My Southern heritage is rooted in cotton too. I was in Greenville for a quick stop just a week ago and bought some cotton boll branches at Twigs to bring home and display in a container to remind me of Dixie!

    Reply
  14. Marie Barr

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Growing up in Spartanburg in the ’30s and ’40s was wonderful. Fields of cotton were everywhere! All the mills were running turning the cotton into fabric. It was an amazing time. I actually have a memory of picking cotton all day once, thinking that at the end of the day I would have a lot of money. I made 11cents!!! Needless to say, that was my one and only day in the field.

    Reply
  15. Ruth Ann Bigger

    What a small world: Karan and Mark Hodges are friends from when we lived in Franklin, VA…I just wasn’t aware of the name of their ginning business.

    RA

    Reply

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