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Monday, June 13, 2011

In them ole cotton fields

Driving east on US 80 from Montgomery, Ala. in the 1960s, one encountered an enormous cotton plantation of 50 square miles. Occupying a flat plain at the eastern extremity of the Black Belt, the fertile and tree-less soil lay under the exact combination of humidity, sunshine, and high summer heat that is essential for cotton. The plantation had been developed prior to the Civil War by the McLemore family and, of course, their slaves too. Eventually it had its own cotton gin, railroad siding, and general store.

I remember when the plantation was still operating. It produced its last bale in 1983, and much of it has been subsumed into urban sprawl.

And so it went with other cotton plantations. Many factors led to cotton's decline: the loss of cheap labor as farm workers -- both black and white -- fled to cities, competition from overseas farms, prices that peaked in the 1920s, plant disease, predation by insects, the higher profitability of soybeans, degradation of farmland because of poor agricultural practices, and the introduction of synthetic fibers. By 1983, the acreage devoted to cotton production in Alabama had fallen to just 5% of the acreage 60 years before.

Here in North Carolina, the most profitable crop was always tobacco not cotton; but textiles were once the foundation of the manufacturing base. Nearly all textile mills have closed. The last big mills to survive made cotton towels, cotton jeans, cotton socks, and cotton underwear.

Another perspective: when I was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, the Institute offered B.S. degrees in Textiles, Textile Engineering, and Textile Chemistry. Those programs are long gone, and Tech added an exclamation point by razing the not-so-old Textiles Building.

Cotton, nevertheless, is still around. It happens that the headquarters of Cotton Incorporated is here in the Triangle. Driven by a 1966 act of the U.S. Congress to salvage the cotton industry, Cotton Incorporated has invested wisely in marketing and research. Worldwide demand for cotton has stabilized.

Some southeastern farmers have returned to cotton, but their experience has been anything but easy. If you want to see cotton fields that stretch to the horizon -- a ubiquitous sight in my youth -- the only roads I know of are US 82 and US 84 across south Georgia.