As I write this, the cotton harvesters are busy picking lint and bailing modules in Bryan County’s cotton fields. If you are driving on the roads in the north end of the county, you might have seen them: huge 40-foot-long, 10-foot-tall oversized loaves of bread with a tarp on top sitting out in a field of picked-over cotton.
The operators, riding high at tractor trailer height over six-row harvesting heads, keep both eyes on the rows, threading a 3.5-ton machine that’s more than 20 feet wide and 14 feet tall down rows of cotton 5 inches wide. Cops and soldiers call it situational awareness, and these drivers have it in spades.
They are maintaining the shoes of the picking heads within an inch of the soil and cruising at 10 miles an hour while watching for stumps and the odd fallen tree limb. They are also dodging overhanging branches from the trees at the field edge, monitoring the systems of the machine and knowing the tricks to make it to the end of the row after the picker basket reaches its 2.5-ton capacity.
Time is money, and they can’t pick wet cotton. After the morning dew burns off, they hit the fields and do not let up until rain or the return of night time dew forces a halt. If the dew does not show up, the headlights come on and harvesting continues on into the night.
It starts over the next morning with a thorough cleaning of the spindles, doffers, moisteners and blower lift systems. Cotton harvesters are complicated machines with lots of sharp, pointy things all over them. Cleaning is essential, but it’s not easy or fun. It’s a good one for the show “Dirty Jobs,” on the Discovery Channel.
The harvesters do not own the field or cotton they are harvesting. The farmer planted the crop, put down the fertilizer, controlled the pests, prayed for rain at the right time and defoliated the cotton so the leaves do not get in the way of harvesting the lint and thereby contaminating the module. The local cotton gin, this one is in Brooklet, needs the cotton modules to meet their needs for proper feeding into the gin.
The equipment is just too expensive for a grower to afford to own his harvesting equipment. Nobody around here has enough land in cotton to come close to justifying that expense, so the Brooklet gin owns the harvesting team to ensure the product it receives is right.
The farmer pays the gin for the harvesting team, and the gin pays the farmer for his cotton. This arrangement works for all concerned. At this point, the farmer is hoping for a good profit because he only gets paid once a year – at harvest – and that has to last all the way until next year’s harvest.
You may encounter the harvester or the boll buggies or module makers on the roads of North Bryan. The harvesters easily span both lanes of two-lane blacktop. The harvesters do not like being on the road any more than you like them slowing you down. They want to be in the field picking, so cool your jets. The truth of it is that roads were not built for you to go visit Susie, they were built to get farm product to market. Period.
As a matter of fact, they do own the road. They paid for it many times over and continue to pay for it today. These guys are my heroes. Nobody produces food like America. When I was a lowly undergrad student, one of my ag professors predicted that someday, in our lifetimes, we would be able to feed the world. That has happened.
Today, if a child goes to bed hungry or naked, it is only because politics has gotten between the food or clothes and the child. The guys who are on the county roads on the harvesters, tractors, log trucks and other forestry and agriculture equipment are producers. They are part of the solution to the world’s problems – not the cause.
When you meet them on the road remember that they are working. You are just commuting.
Gardner is the agriculture extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at email@example.com.