New farming methods eradicate traditional cotton-growing in the Deep South


COAHOMA COUNTY, Miss. -- Standing in his farm office with a dusty adding machine on the desk and a decade of receipts tacked to the cypress-paneled walls, Ellington Massey could be mistaken for his father years ago.

But a chemical salesman in a starched shirt shatters the scene with a portable TV and a videotape advertising a new herbicide.

This collision of old and new is a snapshot of how technology and farming practices are dramatically changing the once-timeless trade of growing cotton.

The harvest now under way covers a decade-high number of acres. Most of this year's crop in the Deep South is about average, with yields of 600 pounds to 700 pounds per acre. Experts say increased acreage and a solid market should maintain the rebound from the farm crisis of the 1970s.

In the course of that comeback, how cotton is farmed and the way of life that surrounds it have changed profoundly.

"Farming has gotten to be sophisticated. The ignorant people who are not willing to learn are going to have to phase out," said Mr. Massey, a tanned 51-year-old who took over the farm from his father 30 years ago.

Here in the dark soil of the Mississippi Delta, where cotton fields have been farmed by the same families for generations, it's easiest to see the evolution.

In 1952, for example, Mr. Massey's grandfather farmed 300 acres. At that time, more than 40 people in 11 families lived in tenant houses on the property and worked the fields.

Today, Mr. Massey plants 3,000 acres with only 12 workers, including himself and his son, 24. He still maintains five tenant

houses on the farm, but even that icon of the Delta is vanishing.

"A lot of farmers have decided to let their tenant houses run down and let labor move into these federal housing projects," Mr. Massey said recently as he waited for the morning dew to disappear.

Cotton farming almost disappeared in the revolution of synthetic fibers in the 1970s. But the enduring popularity of denim and cotton's return as a preferred fabric saved it.

Demand has pushed up prices, averaging at least 10 percent above the 1989 price of 63 cents a pound. That means a Delta farmer with an average yield can expect to clear about $100 an acre selling the cotton, says Charlie Estes, Coahoma County extension agent.

One reason for higher profits is mechanization. Harvests that once took months now can be finished in weeks. Tractors costing $150,000 pick four rows of cotton at once. Huge compressors push the cotton into truck-size modules, much the way kitchen trash compactors work. Those modules can be stored in the fields for months.

"Before the days of the module, the gins would get backlogged . . . and there wasn't anything to do but shut your pickers down," said Mr. Massey.

Testing the limits of mechanization is Dick Flowers, a veteran planter near Mr. Massey. With 10,000 acres, Mr. Flowers has one of the biggest cotton farms in Mississippi.

Workers there are gradually merging fields and working huge spaces with equipment that can plow 12 rows at a time.

The success of such operations has brought with it the virtual elimination of the small farmer in some areas.

Once, it was common for a Delta farmer to plant less than 400 acres. Today, those farmers are almost gone. In Coahoma County, for instance, cotton farms now average 2,000 acres, said state officials. And the number of Mississippi Valley plantations bigger than 500 acres jumped by 1,000 in the mid-1980s to almost 3,400 today.

In Texas and California -- the two top cotton-producing states -- farms average about 1,000 acres.

The trend toward bigger farms isn't as dramatic in the Southeast.

Mississippi Valley farms began getting larger decades ago, but the process took a leap in the mid-1980s. Hundreds of growers who had borrowed too much money went belly-up.

"It ended up a lot of people were getting in financial trouble," said Mr. Estes. "We lost a certain amount of those people . . . [and] the producers who were successful got bigger."

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