First it’s white, then it’s red, in five days it’s dead. My grandfather used to tell me this saying that he remembered growing up on a farm where cotton was king. My family rode into Savannah to stay with friends last weekend and the cotton fields were plentiful. I know cotton well because my first job out of agricultural college was working for a cotton company in Burke County.
Cotton is so rich in history but also huge to Georgia’s economy.
Next to poultry, cotton is our most important raw material in terms of value in Georgia, with an annual production of between 750 million and 1 billion US dollars. Poultry may be king in Georgia, but cotton is at least queen or a high-ranking prince.
The process of growing and harvesting cotton is interesting and worth sharing.
Cotton is grown from seeds planted from mid-April to early June. The plants will germinate and grow into a shrub-like plant in the 3 to 5 foot range, and in eight to nine weeks you will be singing my grandfather’s song.
The white flower blooms and is self-pollinated within hours of opening. On the second day, the flower turns pink, and on the third day, the flower turns red. Then, on the fifth day, the flower dries and begins to develop the capsule. Pods are considered fruits and contain the cotton seed surrounded by fibers that gradually grow and thicken. When the plant reaches the 16-17 week mark, the pods open, releasing the cotton fiber mixed with the seeds. After 20 weeks the seed pods will dry and be ready for harvest.
The harvest part is fascinating. When the cotton is open and ready to be picked, the farmer must first spray the fields with a so-called defoliant. There are different types of defoliants, but generally it is a chemical that causes the cotton plant to shed all of its leaves. Losing all the leaves is important because when a cotton picker (harvester) drives over the plants, the machine wants to pick more fibers than leaves. Leaf components in the fiber can devalue the cotton.
The cotton harvesters are these incredibly complicated machines that you can only imagine someone at NASA created because it’s this series of spinning dials, fans, wheels, belts, blowers, gears and magic that planted them Go down rows and pull off the cotton and seed and throw it in the bin at the back while still leaving the plant upright in the field.
When the container is filled with fibers and seeds, the cotton is usually placed in a packing machine that is placed at the edge of a field. The picker dumps the cotton into the packer, which is 32 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and up to 11 feet high. A hydraulic packer moves the module up and down and really seals it. Recent innovations have a round baler built into the cotton picker, which essentially builds a giant bale of hay out of cotton and dumps the finished bale backwards into the field. A cotton module holds 11 to 15 bales, while a round bale consists of four or five bales.
What makes a bale of cotton?
When harvested, a raw bale contains approximately 900 pounds of seed, 500 pounds of fluff, and 100 pounds of litter (leaf material). The yield in a field is between 1.5 and 2 plus bales per acre.
After harvesting, the modules or bales are taken to a gin to remove the seeds from the fluff. That’s how Eli Whitney became such a big deal. A giant vacuum sucks the raw cotton, which has cotton and seed woven together, into a sprout that falls into a bowl, and a giant circular saw blade protrudes through metal ribs. The blade rips back the fiber between the ribs where the seed cannot fit. The seed falls on the tray and is blown into a storehouse.
The cotton fiber is sent through a dryer on a conveyor belt and dumped into a hopper that hydraulically packs 500 pounds of cotton fluff into a bale. A sample is taken from each bale before it is crushed. The sample is then sent for evaluation based on the length and strength of the fiber, color and the amount of waste mixed into the cotton. Note values determine what price you need to subtract from the market price or not.
Cotton bales are stored until sold and all have their own code that says almost everything about the bale itself, including ownership, quality and total weight. Once purchased, the bale can travel almost anywhere in the world.
Cotton is a big deal in the Southeast. Next time you’re driving the roads out in the country, enjoy the view of an all-white field that could be part of the shirt you wear next Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving.