ISLE OF WIGHT — Dust flies outside Windsor's Commonwealth Gin on a nippy October morning, as Isle of Wight County's cotton harvest begins what's likely to be a global journey that transforms locally grown cotton bolls into T-shirts, jeans and the like.
A tractor-trailer carrying a 20,000-pound cotton module weighs in, then rolls the few feet from the scales to a rumbling conveyor belt leading into the gin off Blackwater Drive. Modules are the massive, tarp-covered blocks of newly picked cotton that farmers number and leave in fields until gins pick them up for processing.
Workers, wearing ear plugs and face masks, guide the block of newly harvested cotton onto the gin's module feeder. It's deafening as the bundle is broken apart and sucked up into the two-story vacuum that separates the cotton lint – the good stuff destined to become the fabric of your life - from the trash.
No chemicals are involved in ginning, said Commonwealth Gin's agronomist Johnny Parker. The process primarily involves heat, hot air and rotating spindles that pull out the debris, said Parker who is an expert in soil management and field-crop production.
With ginning facilities in Windsor and Franklin, Commonwealth Gin is on track to exceed the 60,000 bales ginned last year, said Parker.
"I'm expecting Virginia to break state records this year," said Parker.
Virginia farmers planted 85,000 acres of cotton this year, significantly less than the 115,000 acres harvested in 2011. But Parker expects record crop yields per acre, the product of a healthy growing season with none of the weather-related complications of last year that included excessive rain during harvest.
Cotton production was valued at $7.62 billion in 2011, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The primary place cotton is grown in Virginia is here in the southeastern area of the commonwealth, and the state's top three cotton-producing localities are Suffolk, and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.
The ginning process
Four cotton gins operate in Virginia today: Commonwealth Gin's two facilities in Southampton County and Windsor Suffolk Cotton Gin in Suffolk, and Mid-Atlantic Cotton Gin in Emporia.
More than 60 percent of each module is trash that gets kicked out through ginning, said Parker. It takes less than 30 minutes for the gin to separate debris, such as dried up leaves and sticks, from the cotton lint during the first round of cleaning. The cotton goes through a second – and, if necessary, third - cleaning process to remove cottonseeds before the lint is compressed into 480-pound bales that will be sold to textile mills, Parker said.
Leaving little to guesswork, Commonwealth Gin uses cameras to monitor how much trash remains in cotton lint after the first two cleanings, Parker said.
"You have to be gentle with cotton and recognize that every bale is different," he said. "Some cotton bales need more cleaning than others, and we want to make sure we don't overdo it."
Extracted cottonseeds are blown through a narrow pipe that extends to a separate building where they drop to the floor. But the cottonseed is not a discarded product.
Since last summer's drought ravaged corn crops in the Midwest, the value of cottonseed – which Commonwealth Gin sells as a feed for dairy cows – has shot up, said Parker. The company buys cottonseed from producers and this year, Parker expects it will at least offset ginning costs for most customers. Legally, farmers are prohibited from keeping or reusing seeds from year to year because of patents related to genetically modified seeds that make them resistant to most pests and weeds.
Just before the bales are wrapped in heavy plastic, a gin worker snatches two handfuls of cotton – one from each side of the bale – and stuffs them into bags labeled with the bale's computer-generated bale number.
The samples are sent to the Florence, S.C., office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the evaluation and grading of each bale, said J. Michael Quinn, president of Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative Inc. in Garner, N.C. Each bale's grade is entered into a database accessible to both sellers and buyers of cotton, he said.
USDA analysts primarily use three factors to grade cotton, Quinn said. They include:
•The color of the cotton.
•The purity – that is, how much trash has been removed from the bale through the ginning.
•The length and strength of the cotton fibers, said Quinn.
That universal standard ensures that textile mills, both domestic and international, can be guaranteed a consistent quality of cotton, Quinn said.
Warehousing and selling
In Windsor, the final product - cotton bales – are stored in a warehouse behind the gin until the owners make a sale, Parker said. While the gin buys some of the cotton it produces for local farmers and holds it until prices peak, individual farmers often retain ownership of at least part of their bales and sell them independently or through a broker.
As of Dec. 7, cotton was trading at 72 cents per pound, so a bale of cotton would price at about $345.
Once bales are ginned and graded, they are stored in the warehouse until either the seller – sometimes the farmer, other times the gin – makes a sale to a textile mill. Most cotton ginned at Commonwealth Gin is sold to textile mills on the East Coast, primarily in North Carolina, for spinning into thread and weaving into fabric, Parker said. He is unsure whether those mills use the threads and woven fabric domestically or whether they are shipped overseas.
The gin's busy season runs from around mid- to late-September through mid-December, when farmers are harvesting their crops. The gin uses temporary laborers and often extends hours at the peak of the season and then operates with a small skeleton staff the rest of the year.
Throughout the growing season, Parker works with local growers to provide advice and diagnose field problems, ranging from pests to the best seed selections for various soil types. Parker says he is probably best known locally for his daily cotton report, a one-minute news announcement that airs daily on Franklin radio station WLQM-AM/FM 101.7.
Although cotton bales can be warehoused safely for several years, it is rare for Commonwealth Gin to store them for more than nine months. Once the farmer or gin sells them, the new owner – a textile company – ships the bales to a textile mill for spinning into thread and weaving into cloth.
Isle of Wight County farmers Joseph and Shelley Barlow says it's only after their last bale is sold that the pressure is off.
"We hold on to some bales to see if we can get a better price," she said. "When that last bale is gone, it's always a relief. That's when we are really finished."
From Seed to Harvest
About the series:
Sunday, Day 1: The trials and tribulations of two farm families throughout a growing season.
Monday, Day 2: The financial impact of cotton in Virginia and throughout the United States.
Today: After the harvest comes the ginning.
To see related videos and read the complete From Seed to Harvest series, go to http://www.dailypress.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun