When I walked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the coastal plains last year, I saw a lot of bare cotton fields. How could I see cotton fields with some cotton in them without trespassing? Understanding what I was seeing would also be good.
In a series of fortunate events too complicated to explain here, I met Brantley (the man on the right) and Eugenia from Kinston on the MST in the mountains.
“If we can help you with your MST project, let us know.” Little did they know that I would take them up on it.
So after a lot of planning, arranging and emailing, yesterday I was standing in a cotton field outside of Kinston with Brantley and his friend Lonnie (the man on the left). We were being shown around by a cotton farm manager working for a large, corporate farm.
As you zip down a back road at 55 miles an hour, you can’t tell cotton from soy beans. You have to get up close in a field. The cotton flower is a cone with layers of attractive pink and white petals.
The bolls are the round pods that hold the cotton. Once the boll breaks open and you feel the soft cotton, there’s no question that you’re in a cotton field. Then if you can try to pull out the seeds by hand, you’ll understand why the cotton gin was such a turning point in the history of cotton.
Cotton in Eastern North Carolina is planted in early May and harvested in October. About a week before they’re going to pick the cotton, farmers spray it to encourage defoliation so that the leaves drop off and aren’t picked up with the cotton. This was not an organic cotton farm.
We then went to visit Harvey’s Gin and Cotton, a huge operation going back to the 19th Century. Don’t look for a website, because you won’t find one and they don’t need one. They’re a custom gin operation. Farmers bring their cotton to be ginned and prepared for selling.
The purpose of the ginning process is to take the seeds and trash out of cotton so that it’s ready for spinning. Everyone remembers the history of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin but I was interested in cotton today.
Rick, the manager of the Gin house, showed us around. He was a very articulate guy. At this point, cotton is still growing in the fields and nothing has been harvested yet. The gin house (nothing to do with booze) is a large building with interconnected machinery which takes cotton through many processes.
Starting with the bales taken from the fields, they have to make sure that the cotton is dry. They heat the cotton a little to make it easier for it to separate and get out the leaves and twigs that are trapped in there. After the cotton is completely cleaned of trash and seeds, 1,200 pounds in the field is reduced to 500 pounds.
Cotton seed has lots of uses and is worth money. The cotton seeds pulled out of here are sent on to be a component of cattle feed. But you can make cottonseed oil from it as well.
Harvey’s is a custom gin house. They built this modern plant in 1991. That was the same time that some farmers started growing more cotton or switched from corn to cotton because the price shot up.
“Farming is like gambling,” Rick says. He looks at his SmartPhone to check the price. “It’s 74 cents, now”, he said.
“We send 90% of our cotton overseas in bales. They spin it, weave it, make clothing out of it and return it to us.” Does that make us a third-world country?
Harvey’s starts processing cotton in late September to October. They have 90 days to make their money. The rest of the time, they’re tearing down the machinery and checking it all.
Walking the MST has the power to bring people together in a positive way.
Lonnie, the man on the left in the picture above, found out that he lives right on the trail. In January, a woman biking this section of trail, broke down in front of his house. Lonnie and his wife invited her to spend the night.
Now a few more people know about the MST.