When I was invited to write this column, I was asked “to tell some stories of things, people and events you may have encountered through your career.” Quite frankly, some of those stories are best told and not written.
I was blessed to have known and worked closely with many legends in the cotton industry, some departed: Drs. Bob Bridge, Bill Meredith, Charles Baskin, George Mullendore, Dan Krieg and my brother, Robert. Many others are still with us, such as Drs. Johnnie Jenkins; my brother, J.C.; and Bob Thompson. So, yes, I have stories that could be told, some involving the last two authors of My Turn. Or should it be called My Turn in the Box? I also was blessed to have worked in cotton during its heyday. Times have changed.
During that span, we progressed from two-row pickers and trailers to four- and six-row pickers, module builders and rolls. Heliothis was controlled with organophosphates, followed by pyrethroids and transgenic varieties. In weed control, we have moved on to transgenic varieties that soon will allow the use of herbicides for which I spent many days chasing down drift complaints on the old formulations. Amazingly, growers were able to do all this using tractors with a half-round of slack in the steering wheel, hitches with several inches of slack and no auto-steer or guidance systems.
When weevil eradication began, I told a group of growers they better catch weevils and place them in vials for their kids’ insect collections as the pest was about to disappear from Mississippi. In a span of a few years, we moved from growers literally having to clean weevils from the pickers’ breathers and radiators several times a day to no weevils at all.
Perhaps the saddest change to me is that Mississippi – the birth place of D&PL, Stoneville Pedigreed Seed and so much cotton innovation – has gone from planting 1.2 million to 1.4 million acres annually to planting less than 500,000. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service, in 2013 Mississippi planted 290,000 acres (choke), the lowest since records began in 1866. NASS numbers forecast 450,000 acres for 2016.
A scene from the movie “My Cousin Vinney” now comes to mind. Joe Pesci is drilling a witness who used the time it took him to cook grits as the amount of time he was not watching the street. The witness said it took five minutes. Joe Pesci asked if the witness expected the jury to believe that the “laws of physics cease to exist on his stove and that hot water soaks into a grit on his stove in one quarter of the time it takes the entire grit-eating world.”
I often wonder if the laws of physics and laws of economics change from farm to farm and community. In one area, farmers tell me that cotton takes too much effort and the returns are not there. Yet, in other communities, growers tell me cotton is not that difficult and the returns are better than any other crop they can grow. In some areas, gins are closing. Yet in another area, a brand new gin has arisen and seems to gin more cotton each year.
Let’s look at “hard work” when it comes to cotton production. In 1930, according to NASS, Mississippi planted a record acreage of 4,163,000 acres. Let’s presume the crop was planted with one-row, mule-drawn planters. With 40-inch row spacing, someone walked 2.475 miles per acre for a crop total of 10,303,425 miles, equivalent to 412 times around the world. That was just to plant the 1930 crop. Another example, according to NASS, is Mississippi’s 1937 record production of 2,692,000 bales. In 1937 there were no mechanical pickers. Let’s say it took four people working all day to hand pick one bale of cotton. That would have required 10,768,000 man-days to pick the 1937 crop, not counting those who assisted. Today, one person operates the picker and one person arranges the rolls. That crew, operating a six-row picker at speeds of 5 mph, picks 8 to 8.5 acres per hour and can easily harvest 125 to 175, or more, bales per day.
I don’t believe the laws of physics and economics have changed, but technology has. And new tools make it much easier to plant cotton today.
– Will McCarty, Brandon, Miss.