Opinion Columns & Blogs

Cotton musings from the past and future

wmarshall@macon.com

Janice and I, our son, Russell, his wife, Krissy Pope Walker, and our grandson, Knighton, were having lunch together after church this past Sunday when I asked Russell: “What do you think I should write about next week?” His reply: “Daddy, I wish you would write about scouting cotton, which Larry (my other son) and I did when we were out of school for the summer.”

Well, that suggestion by Russell was enough to start my pontificating to him about cotton and how much this one crop has affected our country, and the South in particular, probably more so than any other one thing and certainly more than any other crop. Let me continue to remember, muse and pontificate.

I’ve written before about my cotton-picking-by-hand experiences. Most of what I wrote showed how much I disliked picking cotton. First, despite my best efforts (at least, when I was about 14 years old and doing it, I thought it was a pretty good effort), I just wasn’t very good at it.

I was small, my hands were small. I let folks “help me up” (get caught up in the field with the other pickers), only to realize later that they were getting the cotton from the cotton plant that was the easiest to pick.

But some good things did come from picking cotton. One was that I began to learn some things that a 14-year-old boy needed to know that I didn’t know. Now, I was not fully educated by the conversations I overheard, but I began to have ideas about “things” I had thought about for a considerable amount of time.

Also, I made new friends, the best of which was the leader in the field, Big Hoss Johnson, who I would now call Mr. Big Hoss. And the singing was terrific. There was lots of gospel music, but I remember one song that everyone in the field seemed to know, but me, that went something like this: “If ’n you see my baby, tell her this for me, tell her I done got high in politics because the juice down here was free, and, I got loaded. Man, I sho’ got high.” After all these years, I remember these words and the tune.

But back to cotton. One of the most interesting books I have ever read is “Dollar Cotton” by John Faulkner. And, yes, he’s William’s brother. It was copyrighted in 1942 and is about a man that goes into the Mississippi Delta, drains the swamp, plants cotton, gets rich, cotton goes down but he persists thinking it will go back up, it doesn’t, he goes broke. That’s about the way it goes and has always gone. It’s not a politically correct book, but I think you have to judge it by the times, which was in the early 1900s. You learn lots about cotton and lots about people.

Shelby Foote, the Civil War expert, wrote three books, a trilogy, on the Civil War and its battles. It’s 1.65 million words and these three books took him 20 years to complete. So much carnage, so much death and hardship and economic disaster. We, in the South, are just beginning to get over it after more than 150 years, and it was largely caused by cotton. King Cotton. Cotton that had to be gathered if those that had it (cotton and money and power) were going to keep it. Think about it, and you’ll understand.

Well, back to Russell and Larry III’s cotton scouting. This past week, I talked to my cotton expert, Stewart Bloodworth, a cotton producer himself, about this, and these are some of the things Stewart told me. Russell, Stewart tells me, there’s still a cotton scouting program, but today, it’s run by professional agronomists. It is private consultants, big business and it involves weed control, fungicides, and herbicides, and in some cases, soil testing and even the use of drones.

So, Russell, like everything, or most everything, there are changes. Boll weevils are not a primary concern. The way you and Larry “scouted cotton,” though effective and economical, is now passé. And, one of the significant changes is that while cotton is still important, it’s no longer, in my opinion, “King.” And certainly its significance is not such, today, that our nation will divide and go to war and hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost because of it. And yes, the mechanical pickers are part of the reason for this. Amazing, but I think it’s true.

Cotton. There’s lots more about which we could ponder and pontificate. Perhaps a book is in order.

Larry Walker is a practicing attorney in Perry. He served 32 years in the Georgia General Assembly and presently serves on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Email: lwalker@whgmlaw.com.

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