Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Cotton Was Involved But Not At Fault

By Ron Smith

While serving as an Extension entomologist for cotton with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service at Auburn University for the past 51 years, I have experienced a few interesting and unusual situations. I would like to share some of the most prominent ones at this time.

Early in my career (1970s), I interviewed dozens of college students interested in a summer job as a cotton scout. Those selected were referred to the counties where they were hired and paid by growers or the local grower committees. The first incident occurred in Etowah County in the 1970s during a period when cattle prices were actually higher than gold. This particular scout had made close friends with one of his growers and would eat lunch with him on the day he was at his farm.

During the summer, the grower — who also had a big cattle herd — went on vacation. Knowing this, the scout called the cattle auction and told them he wanted to “sell” his entire herd and asked if a truck could be sent down to load and transport them to the market. The cattle were loaded and taken away. But at one point, someone became suspicious. The Department of Agriculture became involved, and the scout was charged with cattle rustling. My university administration wanted to blame me for the ordeal.

A few years later, a dentist in Auburn came up missing. Foul play was suspected, but days went by and they could not find the body. Later, I learned that they had a suspect, the local cotton scout in Lee County. After a week or so, an Auburn police detective arrived at my office for a visit. He wanted to know where the fields were that the scout scouted so that they could look for a body. I knew the local grower but not the individual fields. Later, his accomplice spilled the beans, and they found the body in the woods on the other side of the county where no cotton was grown. The scout was tried and sentenced to life in prison.

Moving on a few years, I received a call from the assistant district attorney, Las Vegas. He was representing about 25 men in a class action lawsuit who as boys in the 1950s to 1960s era were shipped to a juvenile facility in Alabama for problem youth. They were made to work in fields as crops (cotton) were being dusted with insecticides from that era. They were not allowed to bathe or change clothes for days, so exposure to these chemicals was heavy. This is where I came into the picture since I could provide information on the insecticides (dust) and application. The case was settled out of court, but my name was apparently put on a national registry for having knowledge about cotton insecticides of yesteryear.

Many years later, I received a call from a court- appointed public defender in Byron, Texas, where an individual was charged with capital murder. The public defender was looking into the man’s past to search for factors that could be used to get him life in prison rather than the death penalty. Just so happens the defendant had been heavily exposed to a certain cotton insecticide as a child in Elmore County, Alabama. From this, I became an expert witness in a capital murder case, quite unusual for a cotton entomologist. I spent several months preparing and was on the witness stand for more than an hour being cross examined by the state prosecuting attorney. In preparation for the trial, I had read the book on How To Be An Expert Witness multiple times and furthermore “knew what I knew.” The defendant was given life in prison based on his insecticide exposure as a child. Several other medical experts also testified for him.

One final experience involving a cotton scout was last season. As the scout drove through a mile or so wooded area to reach a large field in the bend of the river in Cherokee County, Alabama, he rounded a curve on a one-lane dirt road only to observe an attractive unclothed woman coming out of the woods. He immediately suspected an ambush and robbery, stopped his truck and got out with a loaded “45.”

He found out the woman had been abandoned the previous day or night while on drugs. She was still under the influence but could request to be taken to a town about 25 miles away. The scout gave her one of his shirts and water, called the Sheriff’s Department and transported her out to the nearest highway to be picked up by the sheriff.

Now could we all agree that cotton was involved but not at fault? 

— Ron Smith
Auburn, Alabama

Cotton Farming’s back page is devoted to telling unusual “farm tales” or timely stories from across the Cotton Belt. Now it’s your turn. If you’ve got an interesting story to tell, send a short summary to csmith@onegrower.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

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