I spent the end of the 2021 cotton harvest sitting with Billy Tripp in the break room of Tripp Gin Co. near Griffithville in White County.
Tripp was frustrated that November afternoon. Ginning had stopped for a time due to an equipment malfunction. But the gin, built last year, had already impressed me. It was the subject of Wednesday's column since new cotton gins are rare in Arkansas.
Cotton cultivation, which dominated the Arkansas economy for much of the 20th century, has been in decline for most of my lifetime.
When Tripp and another farmer began raising cotton in 2018, it marked the return of the crop to White County for the first time in almost 60 years.
Two months earlier, I had spent the Friday before Labor Day riding around Clark County in southwest Arkansas with Ted Huneycutt, who has brought cotton back to that county in recent years. I grew up in Clark County and remember cotton still being grown in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My father and I were avid quail hunters in those days. The fields we once hunted have long since been transformed into pine plantations.
"Our county has always grown good cotton," Huneycutt told me. "We planted 300 acres this year. Some folks from Cooper in east Texas come here to pick it up and take it back to Texas to be ginned."
In 2015, cotton acreage was the lowest on record in Arkansas with 205,000 acres planted. The size of the crop was up to 525,000 acres in 2020 and then fell to about 450,000 acres this year. Nationally, upland cotton fell from 11.9 million to 11.6 million acres.
"Poor weather conditions during our planting window resulted in delays," said Bill Robertson, extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture. "This coupled with favorable prices for soybeans allowed soybeans to out-compete cotton for acres at planting."
Still, seeing cotton fields in places such as White and Clark counties leads me to believe the crop may be making a bit of a comeback. For those who did plant cotton this year, there were generally excellent yields and crop prices. A headline in Progressive Farmer in late October read: "Cotton Farmers Harvest White Gold."
"Farmers are a pickin' and a grinnin' this cotton harvest with the prospect of strong yields and record-high prices," Matthew Wilde wrote. "This will be a memorable year for most cotton producers pertaining to profit and productivity potential despite a challenging growing season for many. Commodity analysts say growing cotton in 2022 will likely be financially rewarding as well, though rising input costs could minimize earning power.
"Mississippi and Arkansas farmers said 2021 cotton production is remarkably good even though plenty of obstacles existed before and during the growing season. A wet spring delayed planting 10 days to two weeks in the Delta region, farmers said. ... It appears that cotton farmers won't have a tough time finding buyers for this year's crop, which led to the meteoric rise in prices."
Jeff Johnson, a vice president at Allenberg Cotton Co. at Memphis, explained: "There was a drawdown of global apparel inventories during the covid lockdown to levels that are just untenable. With stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and people sitting at home and shopping online, U.S. demand for apparel didn't go down. It went up, especially for leisure wear that's cotton rich.
"Fast-forward 12 months. We're in a situation in this country where wholesale inventories are small, and we need to get inventories built back up. Orders started to hit textile mills. At the same time, we're having bottlenecks in our logistics system. That has created a massive demand for cotton."
In addition to Tripp Gin Co. in White County, a new gin opened in Desha County last year. A gin closed in Chicot County, giving the state 30 active gins. As recently as 1991, Arkansas had 138 gins with 1.2 million acres of cotton planted. By 2000, the state had 86 gins. The trend has been toward fewer and larger gins with almost half of the 30 gins processing 40,000 or more bales annually.
"Smaller gins continue to disappear," said Scott Stiles of the UA's Division of Agriculture. "No gins with less than 7,000 bales of annual volume operated. This trend toward fewer and larger gins has been happening for decades across the United States."
Mississippi County has the most active gins with six, followed by Craighead County with five. Mississippi and Craighead counties produce 35 percent of the cotton grown in the state.
"Compared to area farm labor income, you're looking at good-paying jobs for this type of operation," Tripp said. "The gin is highly technical and requires skilled operators. The salary base is good for White County."
The ginning process separates three cotton byproducts--lint, seed and cotton seed hulls. Lint is used by the textile industry. Seed and hulls are used by the livestock industry. Seeds provide a high-protein feed supplement while hulls provide fiber.
The blackland prairies of southwest Arkansas were the center of cotton production in the state before the Civil War. It wasn't until well after the war that swamps were drained and hardwood timber was cut from the vast bottomland hardwood forests of east Arkansas. Once that occurred, the Delta became an integral part of the South's cotton empire.
By the early 1900s, the Wilson Plantation in Mississippi County was believed to be one of the largest cotton plantations in the world.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.