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Loran Smith’s Weekly Feature Column: Cotton Today

There was a time when only the months of November, December and

January had no connection with the growing of cotton, the South’s most notorious cash crop for decades.

In February and March, there was the breaking and conditioning of the soil

for April planting. Cultivating a good stand of cotton was followed by the

growing season, which allowed the cotton to mature and become ready for late

summer and fall picking. There was crop dusting over the summer and most

farmers would then lay by with every prayer on Sunday, beseeching the ultimate authority for rain, for showers of blessings.

Cotton picking in August and September was a hot, sweaty and back

breaking business which did not conclude until the scattering cotton, cotton that had been glossed over, was harvested in November.

A good harvest was such a joyful occasion. It meant that there would be a

good Christmas for the family, loans would be paid off and money left over to

maybe buy a new pickup truck or a piece of farm equipment that would enhance the producing and gathering of future crops.

The long-time nemesis of cotton growing, the boll weevil was still a threat

to a bountiful harvest, but crop dusting was the equalizer. Yet it would be decades later until that dastardly insect was brought to heel.

Today, no farmer is worried about the boll weevil, but it will be a

generation or more before the weevil is forgotten. Cotton is more important

than ever. The world uses more cotton today than any other fiber. It remains a leading cash crop in the U.S.

More than $5.3 billion worth of supplies and services are involved with the

production of cotton. However, you won’t find cotton fields in August and

September populated by field hands toiling under the hot sun. Cotton is picked

mechanically today. If you come into possession of a cotton sack, you should take it to a museum since it would be considered a relic of the past.

From an Internet source, “Cotton Counts,” we become aware that, “Cotton

is a part of our daily lives from the time we dry our faces on a soft cotton towel in

the morning until we slide between fresh cotton sheets at night. It has hundreds

of uses from blue jeans to shoe strings. Clothing and household items are the largest uses, but industrial products account from many thousands of bales.”

It is not just the fluffy white stuff, which most Americans, who ride through the countryside of the rural South are familiar with, it is the multiple use of cotton products, which is so poignant.

In addition to the cotton itself, from which comes cotton cloth, which nearly all Americans are familiar with, there are many other uses of cotton:

Linters, the short fuzz on cottonseeds, are used to produce cellulose for the making of plastics, explosives and other products.

Linters, are also used, to make high quality paper products and also for the production of batting which is used for padding mattresses, furniture and automobile cushions.

From crushed cottonseeds, come oil, meal and hulls. The end product of cottonseed oil you find in the kitchens—shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing

The meal and hulls are processed for livestock, poultry and fish feeds; also fertilizer.

Back in the fields the spent cotton stalks and leaves are plowed under

before Thanksgiving. This enhances and enriches the soil, another reminder of   how important cotton is in our daily lives.

Slavery and its relationship with cotton gave the product a black eye, but it is interesting to note that originally Georgia was not a slave state. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which allowed cotton to be cleaned 50 times faster than by hand, cheap labor became the objective of land owners.

That is when Georgia plantation owners began importing slaves which brought about a sorry story in our history.   It wasn’t cotton’s fault, however.   Today, cotton has no link with anything negative.   In fact, cotton gets the highest of marks when it comes to the environment. Plastic and nylon and similar products are the ones to worry about.

In signing off, it is worth noting that what made human rights issues so bad with the advent of slavery and its relationship with cotton, was more than one group making another group of people subservient. It was all perpetuated by greed.