Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cotton Kingdom III

Finally I did get to see real cotton fields on the Frogmore Plantation in Louisiana. Frogmore Plantation has a long history and still grows and gins cotton today. I learned that the US are the third largest cotton producer in the world, only outpaced by China and India.

As I had not encountered any cotton farms in Alabama and Mississippi it was interesting to learn that Frogmore profited from its location: Until the 1950s the plantation was regularly flooded by the adjacent rivers: The Black River and the Mississippi. The flooding deposited rich silts on the ground, preventing the soil from depletion – something that happened in the Alabama Blackbelt in the 1930s when crops went down due to erosion. After the Corps of Engineers finished working on the Levees the flooding ended. Now fertilizers are in use as well as some crop rotation. Today most cotton in the US is grown in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Right now the cotton plants were about 8 weeks old, they will soon start to blossom. I found some tiny blossoms close to the ground (an interesting fact: cotton blossoms and ripens close to the ground first and on top only later on). The blossom is first white and then turns pink and red. As cotton is a plant of the hibiscus family the blossoms look kind of familiar.

The cotton on Frogmore is harvested from September through November. As there is no handpicking anymore, the machine picks all the cotton at once, while back in old tenant farmer days each plant was picked multiple times, whenever some of the cotton bolls were ready. These are some of the bags cotton pickers would have used. They are put over the shoulder, filled with cotton and dragged along.

Walker Evans: Lucille Burroughs picking cotton,
Hale County, Alabama, summer 1936, courtesy loc.gov

On display is an old cotton gin from the days of the steam-engine. In the gin the fiber is separated from the seeds and other parts of the plant that may have gotten in the bolls. Back in the days only 5% of the seeds were kept for the next year. Now all the seeds are used not only for planting but also for edible oil and other products. After the ginning the fibers are compressed and compacted into bales of 350 to 400 pounds back in the days and 500 pounds today.


On the plantation there are some of the old slave/tenant cabins on display. They are made from cypress wood that likes water (doesn't mind flooding) and is termite-resistant.

After the tour of the plantation one is allowed to drive through the modern ginning facility.

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