September is well under way and is the month fields turn white with cotton. But where I live, it's difficult this year to find a cotton field, as so many farmers instead planted corn, but only to see it wither and die on the stalk as the worse drought in recent history hit in mid-June.
In previous years the fields along the road that leads from my home to the nearest town five miles away were planted with cotton, but this year there's only one.
Cotton farming was a big part of my childhood. Almost every family, whether depending on it for the family's main income source, or in the case of my family, to supplement it, grew some amount of cotton.
We had the "split term" in county schools to accommodate farmers, meaning that school began in late July, was in session 6 weeks, and adjourned for 6 weeks in mid-September when the cotton was ready to pick. Farmers depended on all hands in the family to gather the crop in those pre-mechanization days.
The split term was discontinued in the late 1950s, as mechanization replaced human hands as a way to gather the crop.
The photo below is not my own, but one from the Web. As you can see, this is a very large cotton field on very flat land, which is found further south in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. In the northern areas of these states, including where I live, the land is rolling and hilly. Our area is known as the "Tennessee Valley" because the Tennessee River runs through a roughly five-county area.
|Pictures (above and below) of two fully opened and one partially opened cotton bolls which I cut from a field across the road from my house.|
|The dried boll, after the cotton, below, has been "picked" out.|
|Nothing is purer white or softer than cotton freshly picked from the boll. The fluffy sections contain seeds, which is one reason why cotton must be sent to a gin for processing -- to remove them.|
A few facts about cotton:
Infestation of cotton crops by an insect known as the boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crops around 1910–20. Many southerners, both Black and White, left the south to go to industrial cities of the North and Midwest in the Great Migration during the first half of the 20th century (Now a boll weevil eradication program has nearly wiped out the little pest)
Cotton has a long and storied history in the southern United States. Without it, and the slavery system associated with cotton plantations, cotton would not have become the economic force that it did.
On the eve of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s cotton was America’s leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe.
The cotton industry was one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world supply of cotton came from the American South. This industry, fueled by the labor of slaves on plantations, generated huge sums of money for the United States and influenced the nation’s ability to borrow money in a global market. In many respects, cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century.
Alabama's nickname in former times was "The Cotton State," but was changed to "Alabama the Beautiful" when the state was no longer a top producer of the commodity.
Cotton growing in fields has a certain odor associated with it; not unpleasant but unusual and difficult to describe. Cotton fields remind me of simpler times, of my youth, but one thing is certain: I do not miss picking that cotton. It was hard work.
Thinking about cotton also reminds me of a statement from a friend and colleague I knew while working at NASA. We grew up in the same town, and upon his promotion to the highest executive-level in the federal government, I sent him a congratulatory note, adding something to the effect of, "Not bad for a hometown boy," to which he replied: "All I ever really wanted was never have to pick cotton again!"