Lonnie Gibson with the new GT Cotton Company LLC sign in Cardwell, Mo.
Lonnie Gibson with the new GT Cotton Company LLC sign in Cardwell, Mo.

Persistence pays off in efforts to restart Missouri Bootheel gin

Lonnie Gibson and Jeff Todd and employees help bring GT Cotton Company LLC Gin back to operation in Cardwell, Mo.

Jeff Todd had already decided he didn’t want to own part of another cotton gin. But his partner, Lonnie Gibson Jr., did. So Todd, who farms near Campbell, Mo., reluctantly agreed to visit the Cardwell Co-op Gin in Cardwell, Mo.

Todd wasn’t impressed when he and Gibson, who farms near Arbyrd, another small town in the Missouri Bootheel, drove up to the Cardwell gin that day. The parking lot was grown up in weeds. But Todd was surprised when he went inside the gin.

“With me being a gin owner already, when they opened that door, I said, “Gollee, There’s a Samuel strapper and an Uster,’” he said, recounting what he saw that day for a visitor. “I thought, ‘This gin is several decades ahead of the technology of the other gin I own.’ That was an eye-opener for me.”

The Cardwell gin could have become another in a depressing list of statistics – More than half the gins that were in business in the five Mid-South states in 2006 are no longer operating (the number has declined from 266 to 131), according to USDA’s annual May Cotton Ginnings Summaries.

Instead, this is a success story about how Gibson, Todd and their employees were able to turn the gin around and have a limited run for their GT Cotton Company LLC Gin during the 2015 season. In 2016, they ginned about 19,000 bales. In between, there was a lot of hard work, persistence and faith.

A Turnaround Story

“The first time Lonnie asked me if I would ever consider buying a gin, I said, ‘absolutely not,’” said Todd. “I told him owning one gin is enough.

“My great-grandpa and grandpa both owned shares in a small gin in Clarkton, Mo., and it finally ceased to exist – kind of like where this (Cardwell) place was headed. It ran out of cotton and didn’t have enough to make a go of it.”

Later, Todd’s family  – Jeff is the fifth generation to be in farming – became shareholders in Peach Orchard Gin in Gideon, Mo. “When I was a kid, I always thought I wouldn’t mind owning part of a gin,” he said. “So that was always a goal of mine, but owning two of them never has been a goal.”

Gibson decided to make an offer for the gin – he had been approached earlier by some of the co-op members about joining the board. The offer – and his request to become a board member – were both subsequently rejected by the board.

“The next year they came to Lonnie and asked him if he would make another offer,” said Todd. “The offer he made this time was substantially lower than the previous one. That was in the valley for the industry – when cotton acres had really fallen.

‘Put it up for auction’

“They told him that offer was also unacceptable, and his response was ‘Then put it on the auction block, because nobody is standing in line to buy a cotton gin. I can’t even get my partner, Jeff, to be interested in it. But they turned him down again.”

Gibson continued to talk about buying the gin through the winter of 2014-15,” said Todd. Then, in August of 2015, Gibson called Todd and asked him to meet to talk about trying to buy the Cardwell Gin – one more time.

They put their heads together and came up with a figure they thought the gin would actually be worth. The number, which Todd declined to disclose, was even lower than the “half-offer” Gibson had made the year before.

“We were the highest bidder this time, and the next one was just below that,” said Todd. “This time the board accepted it, and we closed. Then they told us we wouldn’t be able to gin cotton that year (in 2015.) That’s all we had to hear, and we went on a mission to get the gin running.”

Todd’s father, Joel, who farmed for 50 years in the Bootheel, had been diagnosed with cancer and was terminally ill.

Know you can do it

“I was telling my Dad we were beginning to think we wouldn’t get to operate the gin that fall (of 2015),” said Jeff Todd. “He told me he had faith in us, and that we would gin cotton that fall, maybe not all of it, but that we would operate it ‘because I know how y’all are.’

“One of the last things he told me before he died was ‘get that gin running,’” said Todd. “That gave me some hope, hearing that from him. When Lonnie started getting stressed out, I told him we would run the gin that fall because my Dad said we would.”

Gibson said Todd never wavered in his faith the gin would run in 2015. “I’m not going to say I never had a doubt. I was a little concerned, but I never told Jeff that because of what he was going through with his father. We decided where there’s a will, we’ll find a way.”

It helped, he said, that most of the Cardwell community rallied behind them, supporting them in their effort to reopen the gin. “There were a few naysayers, but most of the people acted like they wanted us to succeed.”

Gibson and Todd formed their partnership to address another problem – rising input costs back in 2008 when cotton, corn and soybean prices were becoming significantly higher than they are today. The problem was input costs were rising, as well.

Pass on the savings

After watching fertilizer and chemical prices rise to unheard of levels, Gibson and Todd started a wholesale-retail chemical business, they called GT Ag, LLC. The goal: to buy crop inputs in bulk and pass the savings on to local farmers.

The lessons they’ve learned in the years since they formed GT Ag served them well in launching the gin during the 2015 harvest.

For openers, they went through the gin and installed new saws and worked on the air ducts to make sure the gin was in good working order. They learned they had a bad cylinder in the UD press and replaced it.

Obtaining insurance coverage to operate the gin was another obstacle. “Lonnie hammered on that until he got it done,” said Todd. “I was trying to pick cotton, and we knew my dad was doing to die, though we didn’t think it would be as fast as it was. He got sick the first day we picked cotton, and 20 days later he died.”

“He was buried on Nov. 2, which was the first day we ginned. We just fed it through there, and before we knew it we had about 6,000 bales ginned. The year before when it was operating as Cardwell Co-op, they ginned about 1,500 bales.

“I was sitting at my father’s funeral, and I got a video of the first bale coming out of the press,” said Todd. “That’s kind of how that happened. I think we might have given up, to be honest with you, if Dad hadn’t said what he did on his death bed.”

Since the initial push to get the gin up and running in 2015, Gibson and Todd have continued to work on upgrades, including adding more services such as increased grain storage. They also completed the licensing process to sell fertilizer through the gin.

Continuing Upgrades

Not long after they finished ginning the 2015 crop, they hired Craig Reed as the new gin manager and Jamie Brock as the gin office manager to help smooth out the transition. The two had worked together at the Stephens Gin and both have extensive experience in the ginning industry.

They’ve also made a conscious effort to ensure a safe operation since the beginning, working with the Southern Cotton Ginners Association’s William Lindamood. For their efforts, they received an SCGA Safety Award at the 2016 Mid-South Farm and Gin Show.

And they continue to give back to the community in other ways, sponsoring Little League baseball teams and other activities.

What does Todd think about the decision to purchase Cardwell Co-op Gin now?

“When we were finishing the 2016 season, the thought occurred to me that if I was ginning all my cotton at Peach Orchard Gin, I might be through, and I might not be,” he said. “Or someone else’s cotton might not be finished. It’s not a bad thing to have two good cotton gins where you can gin your crop.

“That, and I think Lonnie has had a lot of fun bringing this gin back to life.”

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