Randy Ainsworth is Southern Cotton Ginners Association president for 2017-18.
Randy Ainsworth is Southern Cotton Ginners Association president for 2017-18.

SCGA president brings innovation, concern to ginning group

Manager of historic Louisiana gin seeking more input from members in legislative process.

Cotton producers had the best -- and the worst – of all worlds in the area served by the Tanner & Company Gin at Frogmore in northeast Louisiana in 2016.

“We saw early cotton that didn’t pick a bale,” said Randy Ainsworth, manager of the Tanner Gin in Frogmore. “But on cotton planted 30 days later, we saw three-bale cotton with the picker monitor reading 4.58 bales per acre in certain areas. It was beautiful cotton.”

The up-and-down-yield results were reflected in the final numbers for Tanner Gin for 2016.

The unusually heavy August rains took a toll on Louisiana and all of its crops, but the rain was not the only problem. “The rains that moved up the west side of the Mississippi River in August created target spot, a relatively new disease for the Mid-South. We probably would have been able to hit our target if not for that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter now; it’s what we have. Some had it a lot worse.”

Although prices have improved somewhat, continued low returns are creating a winter of discontent for many producers and for the ginners Ainsworth will lead as president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association in 2016-17.

Speaking out more

Ainsworth believes that discontent means he and other members of the Southern Cotton Ginners need to be speaking out louder and more often to try to help provide solutions for the problems facing the cotton industry.

Having spent most of his career in ginning – he began working at his uncle’s cotton gin after graduating from high school 31 years ago – Ainsworth feels a debt of gratitude for cotton. He also believes the future of rural areas like that around Frogmore is closely tied to that of the cotton industry in Louisiana.

“My family did not own a gin, but I had an uncle and a first cousin who ginned cotton,” he said. “So right out of high school I went to work with my uncle, Fred Herrington. I worked for him, and it just went from there. I’ve been at it 31 years now.”

Sixteen years ago Ainsworth joined the Tanner & Company Gin, which is owned by Buddy and Lynette Tanner. The Tanners purchased the 1,800-acre Frogmore Plantation and built the Tanner Gin in 1991.

Frogmore Plantation, which dates back to the early 1800s, was the site of a Civil War encampment of nearly 2,000 Union soldiers and a Civil War battle. The Frogmore Cotton Plantation and Gins offers group tours where visitors can learn about growing and picking cotton through nearly two centuries, plantation life, the Civil War era and Delta music.

First automated gin

During September and October, visitors can also watch one of the few computerized gins – the Tanner & Company Gin – in operation. Ainsworth set up the computer-controlled system and wired the gin to improve the efficiency and safety of the gin operation. 

Cotton was truly king in the Frogmore area until 2007 when rising corn prices and increasing disenchantment with cotton led to a 40 percent decline in acres.

Since then, the area has weathered more problems. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav dumped 20 inches of rain and brought 60- to 70-mile-per-hour sustained winds to the Frogmore area, ripping cotton from the boll and dumping it on the ground. The cotton crop dropped from an anticipated 25,000 to 30,000 bales to 6,549.

“That was a very difficult time for us and the local community,” said Ainsworth. “But we got through it.”

 'Go for it’

“We were the first totally automated gin,” he said. “We wrote the programming and did it all. I took the training; I learned how to program PLCs and interfaces; and it just came to a point where the owner of the company said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go for it.’”

What that meant was that Ainsworth and his helpers “pulled out every wire in the gin. That was hundreds of wires. You pulled out every one of them, and now everything I do is through Ethernet cables. I tell you it was scary. We had it all laid out there, and I kept telling myself you can do it, you can do it.

“When I look back now I’m glad I did it,” he said. “It was a worthwhile thing, and it really changed the way we operate. We’re still moving forward, and we’re going to try some more things.

Among those is making more use of the RFD tags that are imprinted on the round module covers that are prevalent throughout the Cotton Belt.

A broader focus for SCGA

As president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, Ainsworth says he wants to focus more attention on the less-public side of the organization, which will be celebrating its 50th year in 2017.

“Everyone knows we have the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, but there’s a lot more to the organization than that,” says Ainsworth. “I want to focus on the things the Southern Cotton Ginners Association can do for cotton farmer, as well as the ginners.

For most Mid-South farmers, cotton is an option, something they can grow if the price and their land is right. For ginners, cotton is the only option, the crop that determines whether they can continue to operate.

“What happens to cotton affects my lifestyle,” he says. “I’m not going to sit back and do nothing, or I might not have a lifestyle. If the Southern Cotton Ginners could help to improve the plight of cotton farmers, I want to be involved.

Ainsworth says he believes that what’s happened to the U.S. cotton industry over the last 10 years cannot be attributed solely to the cotton reserve policies of China or production increases in India or other cotton-producing countries.

Need more speaking out

“Instead of going to our legislatures or to Congress to voice our concerns, we’ve said that’s someone else’s problem to fix; that’s Southern Ginners’ problem; that’s the National Cotton Council’s problem,” he said.

“I’m just as guilty as the next guy. Instead of writing letters and making phone calls, I went to the golf course, or I went hunting. All farmers, all ginners own a piece of what’s going on now. If we had stood up and let people know what’s going on down here, I don’t think we’d be in the shape we’re in. “I’m just speaking for myself, but I’ve been allowing someone else to talk for me. I know that’s what associations are for, but I also need to be speaking for myself.

“I’m also planning to explain to my employees how important this is because not only do I need to be writing letters, but they need to look at what’s going on and how it can affect them.”

Ainsworth said he’s not being critical of the National Cotton Council or other farm organizations. “They’re doing everything they can, but they need more people speaking up and speaking out about the situation in agriculture.”

Ainsworth and his wife, Jami, have been married 31years. They have two children, Cameron and Cari. Cameron and his wife, Britanny, have two children, Natalie and Avery.

His term as president will begin at the organization’s annual meeting at Memphis March 2, prior to the start of the 65th anniversary Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, March 3 and 4,.at the downtown Cook Convention Center.

For more information on Tanner & Co., visit http://www.frogmoreplantation.com.

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