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Hooked On Cotton

keith edmistenI grew up in Harmony, North Carolina, a small town in the Piedmont. Our farm primarily had beef cattle, beans, corn and small grain all grown on the typical red clay soils of the Piedmont.

My father and grandfather farmed together. We had a 5-acre cotton allotment, but we quit growing cotton when I was young. Small cotton and tobacco allotments were common in my area at the southern end of the Old Tobacco Belt at that time.

We quit growing cotton before I was able to fully participate, but it was picked by hand. Fortunately or unfortunately, I got to have plenty of experience priming, topping and hanging tobacco. Everyone used stick barns until about the time I went to college.

I remember looking up Cecil sandy loam — the predominate soil on our farm when I was taking soil classification at North Carolina State University. The soil description called it a yellowish-brown topsoil. I thought they must have made a mistake because our soil was red from top to bottom except along the creeks.

When I learned it was because the topsoil had all eroded, I thought about something I had heard growing up, “cotton robs the land.” I remembered this, but later came to the realization that cotton doesn’t “rob the land,” but the way we grew cotton — cultivating all the time — did cause erosion.

I was working at Mississippi State in the late ’80s when conservation tillage came along. I remember many experienced cotton folks did not think it would work due to the relatively poor seedling vigor cotton had. But no-till allowed cotton to come back in my part of the state.

A few years after we quit growing cotton, my father took me to a neighbor’s cotton field when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. He told me this was the last cotton field in my county. The local gin would be closing after that year. My father wanted me to get the experience of picking cotton, so I did that day. I remember thinking that this was a momentous sad occasion.

Nobody grew cotton commercially after that. But one old man, Mr. Bolin, grew four rows of cotton along Highway 901 near our farm. I got to know Mr. Bolin as he was a bee expert and my father became allergic to bees. I had to take over the bees and Mr. Bolin helped me.

He also taught me how to catch baby skunks and other things a young boy needed to know. I asked him why he grew the patch of cotton each year as it was never harvested. He said he didn’t want the kids to forget what cotton looked like. Mr. Bolin tweaked my interest about cotton as he told me stories about it.

All this made me interested in cotton, but the thing that really hooked me was going to Mississippi. I took Will McCarty’s position as area agronomist for the southern half of Mississippi when he moved to Starkville to take George Muldendore’s place as state cotton specialist. I could work with all the crops there, but two things drew me to cotton.

Will took me under his wing, and I loved to hear him talk about the intricacies of growing cotton, defoliating cotton, etc. I could tell right off the bat that cotton was a complicated crop, a perennial by nature crop we grow as an annual. The cotton growers seemed to be more serious and better managers than some growers of other commodities. They had to be, cotton demanded it. I was hooked!

I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with many great specialists, researchers and cotton producers. I really owe a lot to people like Will McCarty, Charlie Burmester, Ron Smith, Jack Bacheler, Alan York, etc.

My greatest professional blessing is to see my former graduate students contribute to the cotton industry. In fact, I now get to work side by side with one of my former students — Guy Collins. I wish I could work more closely with all of them.

— Keith Edmisten
Raleigh, North Carolina
kledmist@ncsu.edu