In Louisiana, cotton was once known as “the king.” Today, cotton planting is at a record low, and its days as the lucrative cash crop for Southern farmers has faded into the distant past.
Ken Cochran, 93, can remember how his family was able to eat during the Great Depression. The former World War II pilot and school principal chopped cotton as a teenager and earned 75 cents a day.
“Working in the cotton field was what was available for cash,” he says, from his lakefront cabin just minutes from the cotton fields.
Cochran grew up on a farm in Vivian, La. His family lost all their savings during the Depression, and his father couldn’t find work. He recalls that a truck would pick up all the out-of-work people from the town square and take them to the fields. He says blacks and whites toiled side by side.
“The black man who furnished us our water used to sing a song, and we would hum, and we would sing, and we would sweat. They didn’t give us break time very much,” Cochran says.
That was the cotton plantation of yesteryear. Now, the crop is produced using heavy machinery, not field labor.
David Kerns stands in rows of cotton at the Louisiana State University research station in Winnsboro. He’s impressed with the 1,000 acres of cotton growing around him. As the state’s cotton specialist, very few farmers are calling on him for advice about how to manage the crop.
“It’s simple economics. Farmers want to make more money, just like anybody else would like to make more money,” Kerns says. “Currently, they can make more money growing corn and soybeans than they can cotton.”
If the price of cotton stays as low as it is, farmers will start to sell off their machinery, and that could prevent them from ever growing cotton again. With so little of it being planted, that’s putting a number of cotton gins out of business.
John Carroll has been operating a cotton gin in the tiny farming community of Gilbert, La., since 1976, when he took it over from his grandfather. Every fall, he hires a crew of about 15 local men to help him in the around-the-clock ginning process, separating the cotton fibers from the seeds. He says in its heyday, Louisiana had more than 100 cotton gins. There are 29 left.
“Most ginners are not young. It’s hard work. It’s long hours. It’s not something that attracts a lot of young people,” Carroll says.
Carroll thinks about getting out of the business, and selling his gin for parts. But he’s loyal to the 20 farmers who’ll be bringing their cotton to him come September. And if he quits, he says, it’s likely that the big cotton warehousing facility down the road will go bust.
“The whole infrastructure is right on the verge of not necessarily collapsing, but there’s going to be a lot of consolidation,” Carroll says.
The United States is a distant third behind China and India in cotton production. That’s not going to change with the textile mills and garment factories concentrated in the Third World. But Kerns says the world wants the U.S.’s cotton because every bale is inspected for its quality. He says Texas still plants quite a bit of it because farmers there can't switch over to grain crops, due to a lack of water.
The cotton ginner, John Carroll, passed down his farm land to his son, along with some fatherly advice.
“You job is to make money for your family and for your business, and I’m not going to tell you what to plant,” Carroll says with a smile. But he’s definitely not steering his son toward cotton.