Thursday, September 13, 2012

In the Land of Cotton

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.

Photo credit: David Sucsy

A large cotton field ready for harvesting. To accommodate the machinery that gathers the cotton, an exfoliant is sprayed over the fields by a method known as "crop dusting," in which small planes fly low and spray fields to kill the leaves and force them to drop from the plants.

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. 

Pictured above and below is a cotton field, probably no more than 10-15 acres in size, near my home, . It looked as if a vehicle had passed over this outer perimeter of the field and flattened the cotton stalks onto the ground. I chose not to venture further into the field for a better picture, because who knows what varmints lie within?

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.

“King Cotton” was a slogan used by southerners in 1860 to support secession from the United States by arguing cotton exports would make an independent Confederacy economically prosperous, but by summer 1861, a Union blockade shut down over 95% of exports. Consequently, the strategy proved a failure for the Confederacy and King Cotton did not help the new nation.

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!"


  1. Good early morning.
    Oh, the cotton fields look lovely - the white balls, incredible.
    The dusting, to kill the leaves, must be one of the things, which makes cotton, a natural product, not an ecological one in the world of today?
    Was the cotton totally hand-picked in the past, was it considered ecological then?
    Whatever the case, I think of cotton as a natural product of the nature, and use it.

  2. Hi Mette, my you are up early! I believe you are correct. During the growing season fields are sprayed with Round-Up, which kills all weeds and the defoliant sprayed for the leaf drop is surely not good for the Earth; it also aggravates peoples' allergies. Yes, all cotton was hand picked until the 1960s, when these huge machines took over the job. I'm pretty sure it was ecological then because workers "hoed" out the weeds by hand and a defoliant wasn't needed, as the defoliant is needed to the machines doesn't collect them. I'm with you; love cotton; nothing like all-cotton sheets to sleep on and comfortable clothing too!!

  3. I still remember the few fields of cotton in Southern California when I was quite small. You are so right about the smell - nothing else smells like a cotton field. And they can be very beautiful - like your pictures.

  4. Beautiful, those fields. I saw some in South Carolina I think. When growing up my dad planted a few plants for us to see, and I thought it was a miracle that cotton came out of a plant : )

    It is kind of sad that the process is mechanized but I suppose this is what it is.

    Wishing you a great weekend Sanda!

  5. I'm just smitten with your blog and the variety of your posts. It's so refreshing to read a blog with genuine quality!

  6. Oh my aching back - we'll never forget picking cotton. With the money we earned, we puchased our clothes for the fall season and going to the county fair, one of the highlights of the year. The cotton fields are beautiful and I hope they never stop planting it here, its just the south, but hope I NEVER have to do it again. We were paid $3.00 for picking 100 pounds of cotton and it was very hard for me to ever pick more than 150 lbs per day. However, we remember our neighbor who could gather more than 400 lbs plus, per day.

  7. Hi Beryl, wow I didn't realize cotton was ever grown in California! The warm/hot climate there would certainly be conducive to the crop, and cotton loves heat. Interesting that you also remember the smell of the fields. Thanks!

    MrsLittleJeans: Neat that you dad planted some for you to see. Believe me, had you ever picked cotton all day long you'd be happy a machine now does the job. :-)))

    Anna, thank you for that very nice comment. I am so honored by your words.

    Sissy, in many ways it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Yes, getting 150 pounds was quite a feat for we kids, and I well remember that person who topped the scales with 400 lbs. each day!!


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