Wednesday, January 12, 2011

King Cotton

Arizona is one of 14 major cotton-producing states in our country, all in the south. World-wide, we use more cotton than any other fiber and cotton is a leading cash crop in the U.S. The plant grows in warm climates and most of the world's cotton is grown in the US, the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China and India, as well as Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey.

Many people are familiar with cotton farming, but since we have lived most of our lives in the cooler climes near mile-high Denver, we weren't familiar with how it is grown or harvested. The Ancestral Sonoran Desert people who lived at Casa Grande Ruins raised cotton, increasing our curiosity about this crop. This year Arizona cotton farmers have a bumper crop and we wondered about the harvest, so when the Pinal County Historical Museum in Florence announced a program on growing and harvesting the crop, we knew we wanted to attend.

In mid-October we had seen cotton fields where the leaves were still green. You could see the cotton bolls, but it wasn't ready for harvest.

By early November the plants had turned brown and looked very dry and the cotton bolls really stood out.

Forrest Dougherty, an 83-year-old Irish storyteller who was born on the family cotton farm in Gilbert, Arizona, kept us entertained for an hour Sunday afternoon.

It was standing room only be the time he began telling us about growing up on a cotton farm.

Forrest was named after a Yaqui Indian who was a a foreman on his dad's farm. He told us that by the age of eight, he was helping with the planting and harvest. He explained that in this state they planted the seed in March 14, three days before St. Patrick's Day (remember, he is Irish).

In case you are like me and have rarely, if ever, seen a cotton plant close up, this is what it looks like.

This is a machine (don't know what it is called) that harvests the cotton.

After harvest, the cotton is piled at the side of the field in what Forrest called modules. Over the coming months, the modules are picked up one at a time by very large trucks and taken to the cotton gin.

At the front of the room you can see Forrest and his daughter, Suzie, who helped with his visual aides.

We learned that all parts of the cotton plant are useful. The fiber or lint is used in making cloth; linters--the short fuzz on the seed--provide cellulose for making plastics, explosives and other products. Linters also are used in high quality paper products and processed into batting. The cottons seed is separated into oil, meal and hulls for use in food for humans, livestock and poultry, as well as fertilizer. Even the stalks and leaves are plowed under to enrich the soil.

This year, at least, the economic picture for Arizona cotton farmers is excellent, especially since the harvest is so large. (I don't know if that is true in other states.) Because of bad weather conditions in cotton-growing countries around the world, there is a shortage of the fiber and cotton prices are very high, so Arizona farmers are having a good year.

Forrest is a great entertainer, beginning his presentation with a Yaqui Indian prayer in honor of his namesake, and ending by twirling his cotton rope lasso while singing a song

I had a chance to talk to Forrest before we left the museum.

The program went extremely well Sunday. There was seating for maybe 75 people and possible 200 crowded in to hear the presentation. Who was happiest that it went so well, and that it was over? That would be Chris Reid, who operates the museum each day--and gave us the great tour last week. She arranged for the cotton program.

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