Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TOP STORY >> Cotton gin closing as crop is no longer king

Dick Bransford, president of Pettus Gin in Lonoke County, says the facility will not reopen this year because cotton crop is down.


Leader senior staff writer

In a small, detached office, eight farmers and hands gathered at a kitchen table Tuesday morning—they were drinking coffee, talking about the weather, the high cost of farming and low commodity prices.

About 40 yards away, rising like a sudden mesa from the flat farm fields, the Pettus Gin stands forever silent, awaiting the scrap dealers and occasional equipment buyer.

The gin’s last bale of cotton was pressed and spit out in late fall 2008.

The gin itself has operated at Pettus since at least the mid-1940s, according to Dick Bransford, 80, president of the Pettus Gin Cooperative, but the Bransford family has been ginning cotton since at least 1903, originally at Lonoke.

In the mid-60s, Pettus bought out the Bransfords and folded them into the operation.

An enduring testimony to American ingenuity and mechanical know-how, the Pettus Gin can still clean and squeeze a bale of cotton as good as any. And no one grows cotton better or more efficiently than the Lonoke County farmers who collectively own this gin, said Bransford, who lives across Hwy. 31 and has served as president of the gin since it became a cooperative in 1978.

Cotton farmers have no control over worldwide economic conditions, and are at the mercy of the weather, Bransford said.

Worse yet, he said, when consumers stopped buying clothes and manufacturers stopped buying cotton to make those clothes, the bottom fell out of the cotton market.

Lonoke County farmers fled to corn, where prices had been driven high by the demand for ethanol, on top of the need for animal feed and corn sweetener.

So when the amount of cotton planted in Lonoke County fell from 35,000 acres in 2008 to about 3,200 acres in 2009 the gin went dark and its members took their cotton to the so-called New Gin in Coy.

Simply put, because of prices, there’s simply not enough cotton to fire up the gin, and anytime a gin closes for a year or more, it’s about impossible to start back up, he said.

Another problem for the Arkansas cotton farmer is that the giant seed companies require them to buy new seed each year rather than save seed from the year before. They have to pay about $500 for a 50-pound sack of seed that will plant about seven acres.

In India and other competing countries, the producers refuse to buy new seed, so they can produce cotton more cheaply.

Patent and other laws in the U.S. make that impossible for producers here, he said.

Until last year, the gin employed four people year round, including ginner Jackie Miller, who’s been the ramrod at Pettus for about 30 years. About three more hands worked full time in the warehouse.

During ginning season, they ran one or two eight-man crews from Texas, Bransford said.

Now the gin is occupied by a skunk, various rodents and birds in the top of the industrial cathedral.

Miller and his assistant, Matt Wooldridge, work part time now at the Lonoke County Museum. Miller also hauls fish for local fish farmers. He and Wooldridge also get part-time work for Bransford.

“We’ve already started cannibalizing the gin,” he said. “We’ve shipped some fans, and started stripping copper” out of the wiring and switchboxes.

He hopes still to sell the large motors, but the gin stands, carefully maintained though they are, are too small and too old to generate much interest.

Cotton once was king. Now it’s a struggle.

It’s picking up in other countries like India and China, where modern farming and production technology have been imported from the U.S., irrigation has improved tremendously and they don’t have to pay $500 a bag for cotton seed.

Other small gins in the area are out of business or going out of business, and overseas processors are looking for larger, more modern gins, Bransford said.

In 2008 there were still four gins operating in Lonoke County but by last year, there was only one gin left—the “New Gin” at Coy.

In the glory days, there were three gins at Coy, eight or nine in England, about three in Lonoke, a couple in Scott and one in Humnoke and Galloway, he remembered.

Pettus was capable of ginning 16,500 bales a season, “that was our high,” Bransford said. We ginned 3,000 acres in 2008 and none in 2009.”

“There are people here (for decades) who never ginned a bale anywhere except with us,” he said.

“Cotton’s always been good to us,” he said.

That’s despite the fact that when Bransford first farmed in 1952, cotton sold for 45 cents a pound. Today it brings about the same.

While members of the cooperative may not get much for the old gin, they are hoping to get about $790,000 for the warehouses, sitting empty in Lonoke right now, he said.

Bransford’s son Richard is a partner in the farm and a member of the gin board, but his grandson is an airline pilot and his granddaughter is in med school.

Lonoke County Extension Service Chief Agent Jeff Welch put it like this:

“Over a period of time, cotton became less competitive with other crops.

“The beauty of (that) gin is that these producers became vertically integrated.”

Welch said they produced the cotton, owned the gin and the storage, which is located in Lonoke.

“The problem is the input costs and the risk,” Welch said. “Cotton production is so highly capital intensive that the producers couldn’t handle the risk economically.

“That’s when they started bringing in corn to Lonoke County.”

Producers had to choose which crop to plant on those acres.

He said several of the larger producers including Bob and Robby Bevis have invested heavily in grain storage bins and eliminated or cut way back on cotton.

When The Leader did a story on the Pettus Gin several years ago, Blake Benafield’s farm, which adjoins the gin, was bursting out all over with cotton bolls. This year, literally in the shadow of the gin, Benafield’s planted green beans.

In other parts of cotton country, further east in Arkansas, corn is less feasible, Bransford said.

The cotton production by members of the Pettus coop have dropped so dramatically that it’s not feasible to fire up the gin to process such a small amount of cotton, Bransford said.

Bransford himself has cut down from about 1,600 cotton acres a year to 200 in 2009 and 300 acres this year, he said.

He already owns his equipment and he’s grown cotton as long as he’s farmed.

“I just want to keep a hand in,” he said. “Maybe we can make a good crop and the price will be good.”