Cotton is “the fabric of our lives” as the advertisement tells us. But in my area it is a huge economic engine too. Many farmers here plant acre after acre of it, all irrigated by wells or ditches (canals or concrete-lined troughs carrying river water) because cotton is a relatively thirsty crop in our desert environment.
The majority of cotton seed is genetically modified, or GM. This makes the plant resistant to insects and herbicides. The cotton boll is the round seed capsule. It used to be a smorgasbord for boll weevils and boll worms but no longer. Although GM cotton is successfully grown today with less manpower and less expense, many see farmers depending upon seed companies for pricey fresh GM seed every year as unfortunate. Also the GM plants can genetically contaminate wild or organic cotton. The GM versus non-modified seed is a subject for a later date.
In the Fall a defoliant is applied to the fields, sometimes by airplane. On still mornings I have been surprised to see the planes flying so low, delivering death to the cotton leaves.
Next the cotton harvester picks the cotton and using air blows it into a basket to the rear. Clouds of dust are created by this since our weather is usually bone dry. I’d not want to live in a house downwind of a cotton field during picking. The harvester dumps the basket into a module builder which compresses it. The 10 ton modules sit under colorful tarps on the edges of the bare fields.
Eventually a large truck called a Module Getter, well, gets it, and transports it to the Gin. It is at this point that even the casual observer in my valley will see bits of cotton dancing on roadsides, sometimes drifting. With a twinkle in my eye, I call it our valley “snow.”
As a youngster I learned Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin in 1793. I had no idea why this was important or what was a Gin anyway? Actually it is short for “engine.”
But back to the story.
The Module Getter (seen here) is unloaded by an apparatus that sucks the cotton into the Gin where amazing machines separate the seed and the trash from the fiber. The fiber is cleaned and built into white 500 pound bales. The valuable seed is crushed for the edible oil which is used in a variety of foods. The hulls and meal are used for animal feed, but only for ruminants such as cattle, goats, sheep, etc. - no horses or pigs due to a toxic ingredient. One can often see a herd of cows turned out in the winter in a harvested cotton field, eating up the cotton stragglers.
Line of Modules
In spring the irrigation starts again after the fields are leveled by laser. And the farmers have worked at their desks figuring the costs of labor, diesel fuel, water, seed, ginning, etc. versus the expected return which will vary depending on the quality of the cotton and the market price.
Recent market prices vary from $1 to $3 a pound. Oh, can't forget the friendly US Federal government is also there with a
hand out cotton subsidy check.
It is a very different cotton world than in Eli Whitney’s day. But then one can buy a pair of cotton denim jeans for the equivalent of 2 hours work at the minimum wage. God bless the American soil and our farmers.