As tufts of cottonseed debris swirl in the late October air, Tri Watkins walks across the Rabbit Ridge Gin yard warmly greeting employees. This is northeast Arkansas -- Lepanto is a few miles west of here and Dyess, where Johnny Cash was raised, is a few miles south – and the gin is one of a shrinking number.
Watkins – who is the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association -- is in business with his cousin, Ernest Portis. The pair are distant cousins of acclaimed Arkansas writer, Charles, author of True Grit and Dog of the South. “(Ernest’s) father and my grandfather were brothers and their father actually began the business in 1911.”
Watkins’ great-grandfather had been working for region’s agricultural king, R.E. Lee Wilson, when he left to go into business on his own. It turns out, says Watkins, that his ancestor took away many business lessons from Wilson.
“We ginned together in Lepanto at two small gins for years. In the early 1970s, after Ernest graduated from college, he and his brother came out here and built the (Rabbit Ridge) gin.
“Meanwhile, my side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the early 1990s, they had become too old and difficult to maintain. So, at that time, we bought back in with Ernest. He’d already been out here for 20 years and was looking for a partner.”
Why Rabbit Ridge?
“It’s the local name. Around here, a ridge can be two feet high running through a field.”
After joining forces at Rabbit Ridge, the family built warehouses and increased the gin’s size and capacity. “Now, we’ve got three 141s with stacked feeders. If we’re running 24 hours a day and everything is clicking, we’re a 30-bale-per-hour gin. The biggest year we’ve had – about 10 years ago – was 36,000 bales. Currently, we’re in our smallest year at around 7,000 bales.”
With a dearth of cotton acres, the ginning season is nearly finished. “There’s still a bit of cotton in the field. Once it gets dry enough to pick up, we’ll take care of that and be finished in a week.
“Some of the gins north of here are just getting started. For some reason, the Lepanto area seems to gin out first.”
Watkins terms the area “interesting” because “our soils aren’t uniform. Along the rivers, especially along the bends, the soils are fantastic, what the farmers call ‘ice cream’ dirt. Get away from there – say, around Dyess – and there is heavy, gumbo clay. We laugh about the fact that you can start off on a good silt loam at the top of a field and by the time you reach the bottom it’s gumbo.”
North of here, the soils are more consistent. Travel west and soils are consistent. “I think a lot of it has to do with the topography created by the rivers and by earthquakes like the 1812 New Madrid quakes. We’re still dealing with the effects of the New Madrid quakes with sandblows and the like.”
In the 1980s, some progressive farmers began putting in pivots in area fields. Watkins jumped on that bandwagon. “More recently, we’ve started ripping the pivots out, leveling the ground and going with furrow irrigation. That provides the added benefit of drainage and, typically, you don’t have to pump quite as much to water a crop.
“We’re very fortunate to have good water here – 100 to 130 feet deep. We still don’t have a regulatory structure like farmers in Mississippi are experiencing. However, it’s coming to Arkansas. I was just contacted by the state a couple of weeks ago. They want to put a survey meter on one of our wells to monitor the actual water use.
“Since I came to work here in the mid-1980s the water table has been dropping. I’d say the table has dropped about a foot per year in that time.”
After graduating from law school in 1986, Watkins came back to farm with his grandfather. “At the time, we had basically a land-only operation, a couple of gins, a farm store – now shut down -- and a small bank. I came back and got involved with all of those facets of the business and still am to some degree.”
Did Watkins suspect he’d come back to farm?
“I knew I’d be back when I was in law school. I graduated college and wasn’t quite ready to come home. My father said, ‘go to law school. Even if you never practice, you’ll at least have that to fall back on if you decide agriculture isn’t for you. If you do like it, though, given our banking interests, a law degree would be very useful.’
“Our primary business, Portis Mercantile Company, is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres and Ernest has about 10,000 acres that he and his son, Bradsher, own and manage. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Ernest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown on Portis Mercantile ground was about 6,500 acres.”
Watkins admits falling cotton acres in the Mid-South is a major concern. “Obviously, price is critical to cotton remaining viable. You’ve got to have a good price for lint. You’ve also got to have a good price for cottonseed. The price of cottonseed is what’s helping keep gins open.
“We have two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons and the other is just under that.”
The operation sells a lot of cottonseed into the dairy market. “Dairy producers blend it with rations to increase milk’s butterfat content. Cottonseed is very good for that and we load up trucks heading north to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“We’ll also sell to crushers for oil and meal. It just depends on demand during the year. We try to hold seed and sell it throughout the year to, hopefully, get a better price.”