A ride over the backroads in western Floyd and Polk counties as well as sections of Cherokee, DeKalb, Calhoun and Jackson counties in Alabama makes it pretty clear it’s cotton pickin’ time. The 2020 crop looks like it’s going to produce a bumper harvest.
But make no mistake about it, picking cotton is not the back breaking, finger cutting, labor intensive business it was decades ago.
It’s processed at what Richard Lindsey — primary owner of the Cherokee Gin and Cotton Co. — proudly refers to as the most technologically advanced gins in the Southeast.
This marks the second full year of operation for the new gin just south of Centre, Alabama, off U.S. 411. It processed 82,000 bales of cotton last year and Lindsey expects a similar figure when the season is over this year.
The old family gin was able to process about 40,000 bales of cotton a year but, as production increased across the region, Lindsey decided to make the $11 million investment to keep up with demand. Now the gin is able to produce almost a bale a minute, from the time the cotton enters the computerized process until it is compressed, strapped and bagged for delivery to yarn spinners.
Each of the bales weighs out between 490 and 500 pounds, so you’re talking about more than 40 million pounds of raw cotton fiber. During the harvest season. That’s about a 12-week period when the gin is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The six-county area served by the Cherokee Gin has an estimated 42,000 acres planted in cotton this year. Lindsey said more farm producers have made the switch from market drains such as soy and corn because the cotton market has been less volatile in recent years.
Floyd County farmer John Lowrey converted about 550 acres of land that he owns or leases to cotton about four years ago.
“(Cotton) is a lot more drought tolerant,” Lowrey said. There will be a little less ups and downs on the yield.”
Last year 3,556 acres in Floyd County was planted in cotton and the average yield was about 953 pounds, very close to two bales per acre, according to Keith Mickler, director of the University of Georgia Extension Service in Floyd County.
Tom Stinson, another Floyd County cotton producer, planted about 400 acres this year. He was harvesting this week until his picker broke down.
Stinson’s wife, Cindy, said they had picked about three-quarters of the acreage prior to Tropical Storm Zeta, which blew a lot of the remaining cotton onto the ground.
“We were lucky,” Cindy Stinson said. “It could have laid it all out on the ground.” She still expects the final yield to be pretty good this year.
Alabama Extension Agent Eddie McGriff said Zeta wreaked havoc with some cotton fields.
“Some have lost as much as 300 pounds per acre,” McGriff said.
He pointed to the high winds that ripped tarps off some modules still in the field, causing rain damage to cotton that had already been picked. Nick McMichen, another Cherokee County producer, had the roof ripped off his equipment barn at Howell’s Crossroads southeast of Centre.
For those who aren’t familiar with the process, the cotton gin is where raw cotton is cleaned, straightened and made ready to spin into yarn.
The first part of the process involves removing stalks and leaves,and any other trash it picked up along the way. Then it goes through a heating process to make sure it’s good and dry. The cotton is then run through what amounts to a rotating saw, to separate the fiber from the seed.
The fiber goes into a wet cleaner to further clean the cotton. Then it goes into a 5,000 psi press that compresses the cotton into the bale. Machinery also straps and bags the bale. Bags have a unique bar code identification that tracks the cotton all the way to the mill, where it’s turned into yarn.
The cotton seed, more than 9,500 tons from the Cherokee gin, is shipped to a separate warehouse for processing and sold as feed to cattle and dairy producers.
“There used to be a mill in Rome, Rome Oil Mill, that crushed seed and made oil out of it,” Lindsey said. Now more of the seed goes to dairies and cattle than the oil market.”
One of the most impressive aspect of the computerized process at the Cherokee gin is that there is virtually no waste at the end of the day. The trash, stems and leaves that are separated from the fiber are also baled and sold as agricultural feed.
“It has about 10% protein in it,” Lindsey said.
Nationwide, the U.S. is expected to produce 16 million bales of cotton this year — and less than 25% of that is used in domestic markets. China is a big buyer on the export market along with Vietnam, Turkey and Pakistan.
Lindsey’s gin employs between 40 and 50 people when it’s running full blast, as will be the case for the next several weeks.
If more area producers switch over their fields from corn and soybeans to cotton, Lindsey said his gin has room for a third line, which would take his capacity past 100,000 bales a year.
While the heart of the season for gin operations runs from October through the end of the year, Lindsey said some employees help with shipping the seed material nearly year-round. Other employees work on the gin during the off season.
“When you run that volume of cotton through a gin, there’s a lot of maintenance and repair work to be done,” Lindsey said.
Cherokee Gin & Cotton Co. is a partnership of Lindsey Bros. Inc. and Jordan Cotton, which is now 20 years old.
Lindsey is a third generation operator of the business, preceded by his father, Vann Lindsey, and grandfather R.F. Lindsey. Richard’s son, Rich, is now pretty much handing physical operations of the gin as a fourth generation agribusinessman.