When Tim Price, executive director of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association (SCGA), telephoned Dennis Adams with the news that he’d been selected as the organization’s 2017 Ginner of the Year, he had to hear it twice.
“I was shocked, to say the very least,” says Adams, who has seen 37 years of cotton being blown through ginning systems. “When I started in 1980, I didn’t know what a Ginner of the Year was — much less did I ever think I would qualify for such an honor.”
Early in his career, his mentor and lifelong friend, J.R. Fred Henfling, took Adams under his ginning wing at the 12 bales per hour Holly Island Gin, located between Rector, Ark., and the Arkansas/Missouri state line. For three years Adams watched, listened, and learned. He says he’ll never forget the day Henfling told him, “I can’t make it back immediately after lunch, so go ahead and crank everything up and start ginning.”
Adams began the sequence to start all the gin stands, then hit the valve to the suck pipes, but says he was such a nervous wreck that he walked 10 miles that afternoon, investigating strange pings, clanks, and other odd noises usually not associated with a smooth-running gin.
“I would periodically look out the window for J.R.’s truck,” he says. “I was alone, and I was so unsure of myself. I had been there for less than two weeks, and he wanted me to run the darn gin! Every noise I heard sounded like trouble.”
When J.R. walked into the gin much later that afternoon, Adams shouted over the noise of the gin stand: “Where have you been?” Henfling just smiled and replied, “The only way you can learn to be a ginner is by ginning.”
A CAREER PATH
That trial-by-fire, on-the-job-training set Adams on a career path that led him to eventually manage the gin in the little community of Holly Island. Then, after a series of ownership changes, he was asked to run Hayes and Graves Gin (now Graves Gin) at Hargrave Corner, just north of Rector, Ark. He took that job in 1996, and is still there today.
Around 1989, brothers Bill and Ralph Hayes formed a ginning partnership with Jimmy Graves, but by 2002, the brothers sold their share of the business to the Graves family. Jimmy Graves passed away in 1994, but the gin retains the Graves name, and is owned by his daughters, Pam Bronson, Teresa Frankel, and Ginger Sain. “Ginger is Gregg Sain’s wife, and Gregg was SCGA Ginner of the Year in 2015, so there’s ginning history in the family,” says Adams.
Adams’ parents farmed, and he was born in 1953, three miles from the gin where he works today. He and his brothers handpicked cotton on 80 acres. His father bought the farm’s first cotton picker when Adams was 12.
“Dad still made my older brothers, Sam and Larry, and me hand pick while he drove the mechanical picker,” Adams recalls. “Dad told my brothers they had to pick 300 pounds a day, and I had to pick 100 pounds. I earned $3.”
CHANGES IN MODULES
When module builders first started being used in his area, the gin handled them in a most unique way. “We were still using suck pipes when the first modules were delivered,” he says. “We scrambled to find a way to handle them.”
When a module was needed for ginning, crews would drag it onto a 32-foot steel plate, hook the plate to a tractor, and drag the module under the suck pipes. It was a means to an end.
Today, 90 percent of the modules coming to Graves Gin are round. At the sister operation, Graves Kennett Gin, only 40 percent of the modules are round. “I’m sure those percentages will increase as more on-board module harvesters make their way into our area,” says Adams.
At Graves Gin, round modules are turned up vertically by a hydraulic arm that was tooled by Adams and his crew. The module’s plastic is then removed, and the opened cotton is kept on the module feeder, thanks to sideboards also fashioned by Adams.
“Once the sideboards were in place and the hydraulic arm was working, we were in business,” he says. “Accommodating round modules was much easier than when we started handling traditional modules.”
Adams has overseen some other equipment changes in the last few years, including the installation of a Lummus doorless press that lends itself to higher speeds and a more automated strapping system. He also took out the four old 9418 Murray gin stands and installed three 141 Continentals with BNC cleaners.
“We also installed a bigger stick machine. We went from 15 bales to 30 bales an hour. We also have eight cameras mounted strategically around the gin, which has reduced the time we spend walking to potential problems.”
Walking into Adams’ office, the first thing you notice is the tour-size golf bag against the wall just past the door. There is also a framed print of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus on the wall behind his desk. Yes, he loves golf.
“To me, golf and ginning have similarities,” says the once single-digit handicapper. “If everything is humming along well, there’s no stress. But when things go south, both golf and ginning can significantly increase your level of frustration and stress. I don’t throw clubs any longer, because I don’t take the game as seriously as I once did.”
His stress level did escalate a bit, he says, after getting the news of his Ginner of the Year selection, because he suddenly realized he’d have to stand behind a podium, make a short acceptance speech, and receive his award in front of a large crowd of his peers. “That thought almost scared me to death,” he says. “I could feel my blood pressure begin to spike, and my heart start racing.”
STRESS AND GINNING
Adams is significantly more aware these days of the work his heart does to keep him ginning. After heart bypass surgery 10 years ago, post-surgery medications made him lethargic — he would often fall asleep not long after simply sitting down. A doctor-recommended heart catheterization last summer revealed what looked like blockage, but it was manageable through diet, medication, and exercise.
He was scheduled for a nuclear stress test in December, but when the nurse explained details of the test, Adams laughingly told her: “I don’t need a stress test. I’m a cotton ginner, and I’ve been in an ongoing stress test the last two months!” The nurse was at a loss for words.
He says he hopes he isn’t at a loss for words when the time comes to stand and walk to the podium in the Peabody Hotel Ballroom to accept his award. Other speakers are scheduled prior to Adams’ presentation, and Tim Price has reassured him that he’ll be just fine on stage. “By the time I get up there, most of the crowd won’t care what I say — as long as it’s short,” he chuckles.
Adams has always been competitive. He was the star point guard in high school basketball, averaging 34.6 points his senior year. He finished that season with 935 points, and one night poured in 60 points from the field. “I even missed two layups that night because I thought I was going to get fouled hard,” he recalls.
In 2017, Graves Gin was on track to crank out 37,000 bales. They have averaged between 23,000 and 26,000 the last few years.
No matter the final bale count, Adams says he truly enjoys what he does. “I wouldn’t trade my time in this industry for anything,” says the self-described country boy, who still expects to be visibly nervous when accepting his Ginner of the Year award.