Opinion: Taking a fresh look at cotton

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When I was in third grade we lived in a small town in southern Missouri. One of the industries of the region was cotton. Local farmers, still struggling to recover from the Great Depression, planted fields of cotton in early spring and harvested them by hand around the time school started in September.

Our teacher, thinking we should know more about this ancient crop, arranged a field trip to one of these farms. There we watched the farmer, his wife and two sons – one of whom was in my class – walk slowly down the wooly rows, picking cotton one boll at a time and dropping it into long, heavy bags they dragged behind them.

When we left, we were each given a cotton boll. At home, my mother — who had never seen a cotton field — talked about the movie “Gone With the Wind” and the Civil War that changed our nation forever.

All of this came back to me a couple weeks ago when my wife and I were returning from a Florida vacation and drove past cotton fields in southern Georgia. They looked just like the ones I had seen so many years ago – short, stubby, brown and white.

Cotton was king in the days of southern plantations in more ways than I had imagined. Although cotton originally thrived in India, American cotton was considered far superior. As a result, England, a major importer of the fiber, always bought American cotton.

Then the Civil War erupted and England began buying Indian cotton. India  invested heavily in meeting the British demand for cotton and overextended their financial resources to the extent that when the war ended in 1865 and England turned back to America for cotton, the Indian government was forced into bankruptcy.  This spawned England’s colonial era in India.

Folks don’t pick cotton by hand any more. A Chicago inventor by the name of Angus Campbell unveiled a mechanical picker in 1908. It picked one row at a time and replaced 40 workers. He had labored on his invention for 20 years. Today’s pickers zip through six rows at a time and collect up to 10,000 pounds per day. A really good hand picker seldom picked more than 300 pounds.

One hundred years earlier, Eli Whitney Invented the cotton gin, a machine that would clean a 500 pound bale of cotton in 12 hours, a task that previously took 600 hours of hand labor.

I kept my cotton boll for years. I suppose in one of my many moves over time it disappeared. Even so, despite a myriad of synthetic fabrics on the market today, it’s refreshing to note that cotton is still king.


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