Since I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, harvest conjures images of heavily laden trees and wooden boxes of apples, as well as neatly mown hayfields and barns stacked full of bales of timothy, orchardgrass, and alfalfa. The wooden apple boxes are a thing of the past, and the thousand-pound round bales of hay are more popular with many farmers than the handy square ones I could easily handle.
My years in Pittsylvania County and Mecklenburg County (where I live now) in Virginia’s southern Piedmont have accustomed me to the harvest of tobacco; I even covered the World Tobacco Auctioneering Championship–back in the days of my first radio job–which got me my first spot on NBC Radio News. That’s been so long ago that the old fashioned tobacco auctions on the warehouse floors no longer take place here in Southside Virginia; tradition gave way to efficiency some time during my own inefficient years of having and homeschooling children.
But last weekend, our soccer travel in southeastern Virginia from South Hill to Suffolk brought to mind another iconic Virginia crop: cotton.
The cotton fields on both sides of U.s. Highway 58, near the Virginia-North Carolina line, were plump with white bolls, actually bringing to my mind our last home before we moved back to Virginia four years ago — Hernando, Mississippi. In Mississippi, I did my share of irrational ducking as my car was buzzed by crop dusters while we drove next to cotton fields. More romantically, I loved the thin white trails of cotton along the roadsides and in the town square, cotton blown from trucks bound for market in Memphis, and, I imagined, a trip on a Mississippi River barge. I posed our three sons in front of a field thick with white cotton, so I could send my Virginia family and friends a photo greeting card featuring the Mississippi version of a “white Christmas.”
All the way to the soccer game last weekend, I worried whether there would be enough daylight on our return trip after the match to get a photo of the cotton fields in Franklin, or Southampton, or Suffolk. On the way home, I worried whether we were whizzing too far west past the last cotton field before I would get a good shot. Husband Rick, who has learned to embrace some of my irrationalities, managed to find a spot with enough shoulder where we could sort of safely pull of the road, and I got my photos.
And then there were a few photos out the window of the moving car, using the “sports” setting of the camera, hoping that a shutter speed fast enough for a corner kick would compensate for a moving vehicle.
And then of course, I had to have photos of the Suffolk Cotton Gin. Rick is sensitive to the possibility of trespassing charges and accusations of industrial espionage, so he parked kind of close to the road, and I walked on up to the cotton bales, so I could hear the thrum of the gin (or gins?) inside the buildings. I was thrilled with the little trail of cotton on the gravel road to the gin.
“A bale of cotton weighs about 480 pounds, and Southampton cotton grower M.L. Everett, Jr. says a conservative estimate for an average per-acre yield is one bale. While cotton futures prices reached $1.30 a pound the week of Oct. 25, they were at 75 cents a pound in late July and as low as 30 cents a pound in 2002.” Virginia Farm Bureau
Cotton came to Virginia in 1607, and of course its history here cannot be separated from the tragedy of slavery and its legacy. Cotton’s history in Virginia is also tied to the rise of a once-thriving textile industry–raw materials and capacity for producing finished cotton fabric were once not so far apart. This has a part in our family history as well, since Rick worked for many years in the textile industry, at Dan River and Burlington Industries, in vast departments that opened those bales, carded the cotton, combed it, spun it, and wove it. The factories he worked for no longer exist; those textile jobs were shuttled out of the country.
The boll weevil had spread to Virginia from Texas and Mississippi by the 1920’s, and cotton production was devastated. A boll weevil eradication program for the United States was actually piloted in our Virginia-North Carolina cotton growing region in 1978, and since then, the boll weevil has been in full retreat–and cotton has rebounded. (There will be differing opinions about potential unintended consequences of the eradication program).
Despite that rebound, Virginia’s cotton production is largely out of the sight of a majority of Virginians, who live in more urban and more northern parts of the state. Southern Virginia is the furthest north in the United States that cotton is commercially produced; it’s the edge of the Cotton Belt. Most Virginians don’t realize that in 2010, their state produced 82,000 acres of cotton, up 19,000 acres over 2009, and that cotton is the state’s fifth largest field crop.
Most Virginians don’t happen to pass cotton fields on their way to soccer fields.