It may feel like a recent development, but the loss of cotton acres across the South is hardly a new phenomenon.
“Cotton production has actually been going down since the Civil War,” points out Tri Watkins, incoming Southern Cotton Ginners Association president. “It’s a historical trend.
“To some degree, I think we’re seeing the tail end of that. If cotton acres come back, I don’t think we’ll see the same numbers as in the past. There are a number of things that lead me to that conclusion: the price of machinery, the fact we’ve lost infrastructure, the fact that younger farmers don’t have a history with the crop.”
The Lepanto, Ark., area where Watkins runs Rabbit Ridge Gin with his cousin, Ernest Portis, has seen many row-crop acres go to corn in the last few years. “There’s a lot of available water here so a lot of rice is grown. There was more milo around here this year than I’ve ever seen.”
For this corner northeast Arkansas, the 2015 growing season started off wet and continued later with intense heat. “There was a bit of ground planted in April and then a two- or three-week delay. That certainly impacted the season. We have a bad resistant pigweed situation here. Different insect pressures built up late. Some of that was due to lateness of the crop and some was because farmers had trouble getting into wet fields to spray.”
With the growing and ginning seasons nearly over in late October, Watkins says “It was a really mixed season with highly variable yields – everything from 800 pounds to 1,300 pounds of cotton. Soybean yields have been from 30 bushels to 80 bushels. All in all, we feel fortunate to have come out of the season and be able to farm again.”
He’s also keeping an eye on the budget debate on Capitol Hill where some lawmakers are keen to chop at hard-won provisions in the latest farm bill. “It’s tiresome having to reopen and reargue the farm bill all the time. Right now, Congress is talking about reducing federal support of crop insurance. We just had a big fight over the last farm bill and they want to reopen it? That has to stop.
“Support for farmers is less and less every year. We all agreed during farm bill negotiations that we’d settle for crop insurance. That was the deal and it should be stuck to.”
The family businesses
Long-time Arkansans, the fathers of Watkins and Portis were brothers. Their grandfather began the business in 1911. Their great-grandfather had been working for the famous R.E. Lee Wilson.
“We ginned together in Lepanto at the couple of 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, Watkins’ side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the 1990s, “they had gotten 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.”
After the team-up, “we built the warehouse and increased the gin’s size and capacity. Now, we’ve got three 141s. If we’re running 24 hours a day and everything is clicking, we’re a 30-bale-per-day 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.”
“We’re nearly through with ginning season. 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 Lepanto are just getting started. “For some reason, the Lepanto area seems to gin out first.
“We’re in an interesting area in that our soils aren’t uniform. Along the rivers, especially along the bends, the soils are fantastic, ice cream. Get away from there – say, around Dyess – 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. “West of here, soils are consistent. I think a lot of it has to do with our topography created by the rivers and by earthquakes like New Madrid. We’re still dealing with the effects of the New Madrid quake with sandblows and the like.”
In the 1980s, some progressive farmers began putting in pivots in area fields. Watkins and colleagues “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 as much.
“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.”
After graduating 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 and still am to some degree.
“Our primary occupation, Portis Mercantile Company, is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres and Earnest has about 10,000. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Earnest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown was about 6,500 acres.”
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.’”
Obviously, price is critical to cotton remaining a viable crop choice. “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.”
Rabbit Ridge Gin has two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons and the other is just under that.
“We sell 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.”
The gin also sells seed 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.
“We have two bale warehouses with around a 15,000-bale capacity each. It’s nice to just run the cotton from the gin straight over to storage.”
What about the gin team?
“We have a mix of good employees. Fred Couch is our manager. Along with employees that commute from town, there are several folks live on site and have worked here for close to 20 years. Other members of the crew come up from Mexico. They tend to come back year after year and we like to see the same faces.”
As with other SCGA ginners, Watkins is adamant that the association’s safety program is of paramount importance.
“It’s critical for our gins. The las thing you want is for there to be an accident, especially a serious one. We’ve had a couple and want no more. Our crew is awesome and you don’t want anyone to get hurt. It just isn’t worth it.
“That isn’t to say we can’t improve what we do. That’s why the safety program is there: to help ensure we’re constantly on our toes and getting better. In a busy ginning season it’s imperative we’re reminded that we need to follow certain standards and procedures.”
And the SCGA’s importance doesn’t stop there. “The SCGA is so important to the region’s gins. While we’re not growing as we have in the past it’s almost like we’re fighting a rear-guard retreat.
“To some degree, as issues come up – and you don’t always know what they’ll be until they hit – it’s even more critical that the remaining gins stay unified. We don’t have the political clout we once did. In my mind, it’s imperative that ginners stay cohesive. The SCGA helps be the glue for that.”