Picking cotton in South Carolina
Minturn, South Carolina
By Randall Hill
In a 60-acre field in rural Minturn, South Carolina, cotton farmer Roy Baxley, Jr. was on an important mission. His goal for this bright and sunny November morning was to get the last part of his 1,100 acres of cotton from the fields and to the ginning machines.
As he talked to his crew of 7 workers, the cotton pickers were adjusted and fine-tuned as the fluffy white plants hovered over the field like a large blanket. The morning light reflected low off the crops and gave them an even warmer hue.
Growing up in the South and living here most of my life, the lure of the fields in the fall and winter and the deep history the crop has on Southern culture, was too much for me to pass up. I had to find out more about the process and see it for myself.
The very thought of cotton brings to my mind images of slavery and the back-breaking chore the crop bestowed on the workers who cultivated it before the Civil War. Seeing the crop harvested today, with large machinery and sophisticated processes, gives this observer an even higher appreciation of their sacrifices. The work today is hard and difficult but one has to imagine how it was to those who harvested the crop in the past.
Farm worker James Grooms steered the large cotton picker through the fields with ease. I, on the other hand, held on with caution, positioned outside the cab and on a small platform, one hand on the machine’s railing in order to keep my balance. As the picker started the process of cutting and sucking the cotton from the plants, cotton dust and plant fragments filled the area like a cloud. The dust settled on my gear and after a while covered me like a layer of snow. After a few rows, I developed a system of cleaning my lenses before I took a photograph. It was not an ideal environment for photography.
About halfway into the third row, Grooms stopped the picker and shut it down. The collection bay was full and he had to wait for a large transport bin to come for his load.
During this break, I stepped down from the picker and walked through the cotton plants at ground level. Grooms climbed up a side ladder and from the top of the picker, searched the field for the location of his co-worker who would unload the machine. In this quiet, and eye level with the plants, I felt the connection to the history of the crop and a deep respect for the workers that carry on the tradition today.
Several hours later, the crew finished picking the field. The cotton had been packed in large modulars along the edge of the field. The blanket that once covered the field was gone, ready for transport to the gin to be cleaned.
Baxley was happy that the sunshine and low humidity of the day made the process run smooth and without a hitch.
“As pretty as it is in the fields,” he said as he walked by the last row to be harvested. “It doesn’t pay any bills or write any checks till it’s at the gin.”
Three days later and 10 miles down another country road, nine men work to clean and gin the harvested cotton at the Minturn Cotton Company. The ginning facility is owned and operated by Baxley and his partner Earl Alford, Jr. The two bought the gin in 1971 and have prepared Baxley’s cotton as well as the crops of other area farmers who grow cotton. This year the gin expects to gin about 20,000 bales of cotton.
The gin carries the harvested cotton through 4 cleaning stages before ginning. The machinery uses the same mechanical process Eli Whitney patented in 1794 but it has been updated with modern machinery and electricity.
Using air and suction, the cotton is pulled from stage to stage within the facility and a large network of tubes hover overhead. A heavy coat of cotton dust and lint covers almost every gear and surface in the building.
Felipe Rosales of Raymondville, Texas, operates the modular feeder at the gin. Rosales, with his younger brother Romeo, traveled together to South Carolina to spend the cotton season in Minturn. Both follow the crop as it is harvested in various states in the South.
The Rosales brothers are two of several Texans at the Minturn Cotton plant who bring with them their skills and expertise with gin operations.
I watched as the cotton traveled down a chute and into the gin where the seeds were separated. A steady stream of seeds bounced off a railing at the bottom of the gin and created a stream of trailing light as gravity pulled them through the process.
Gin operator Robert Espino of Weslaco, Texas ran his hand through the falling cotton and checked on the consistency before it was ginned. In a routine he repeated several times over the course of the day, he reached down inside the bottom of the gin and let the falling seeds gather in his cupped hands.
The seeds look like small white cocoons.
After ginning, the cotton goes through three more stages of cleaning and then air pushes the cotton to a press.
Four men, almost like a choreographed dance, take the 500 lb bail of pressed cotton though a series of stages until it is bagged and labeled and staged just outside the door of the gin. Cotton fibers and dust fly all around them and seem to be a planned part of the process.
Bagger Kevin Davis pulls on the bagged bundle and turns it on its end. Until last month, he was working as a commercial fisherman along the South Carolina coast but was laid off and found work here at the gin.
He turned the heavy load side to side to move it to a roller assembly and with a grunt, pushed it to the end of the dock.
Co-owner Earl Alford Jr., has seen a lot of cotton in his day. There is a painting directly across from his desk that pays tribute to the history of the crop. It shows bundles of cotton stuffed in the backs of horse-drawn farm equipment. Men dressed in overalls and wearing straw hats stand around an old 19th century barn.
Everyone at the gin is aware of the history of the crop but no one knows what the future will bring.
According to Alford, things are changing real fast and almost 80 percent of their cotton is exported outside the United States.
“Twenty-years-ago we’d gin it and the cotton would go directly to the local factories. Now they are all gone.”