Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Cotton farmers deserve recognition and a museum
May 6, 2009
Note: On Thursday May 7 and Saturday May 9th, from 8 until 11 the remaining plants from the plant sale will be on sale for $5 for one gallon and $20 for 5 gallon plants. Tomatoes and peppers in 4 inch pots sell for $2.
About the only time cotton farmers get any attention it is negative. Cotton farmers get cussed when the spring wind is howling and dust is in the air. Less dust blows nowadays, for the farmers now plant buffer strips of other crops and deep plow, so less wind erosion occurs. Cotton farmers also get cussed when cropduster planes zip back and forth over the fields and the spray drifts out of the field. When a traveler has to slow down for a cotton module being hauled to the gin, again the cotton farmer gets cussed.
The West Texas cotton farming industry does not get much press. There is no “Museum of Cotton” on the Llano Estacado, and there should be. We do not teach our children about the importance of the cotton industry, and we should. Cotton farmers utilize at least half of the land surface of the Llano Estacado, yet they are somehow ignored and unrecognized. Have you ever been to a cotton gin? Have you ever visited a co-op store at the gin? Have you ever grown a cotton plant in your yard? (They are pretty, and as kin to hibiscus, okra, and marshmallow, their blossoms have a fascinating and unique structure!) There should be a few cotton plants grown at every school on the Llano Estacado. Everyone uses cotton, and the Llano Estacado is one of the world’s major cotton growing regions.
The “palletless module mover” was invented on the Llano Estacado, and the very first were sold in Lamesa in 1974. There is a story behind that piece of equipment. Cotton was picked by hand until the late 1940s, and was hauled to a nearby gin in a wagon. Mechanical harvesting started in 1947, when cotton strippers were introduced. The first strippers dumped the cotton into a trailer behind the stripper, but soon they had holding baskets that could be dumped in trailers waiting at the edge of the field. Gin yards filled with loaded trailers, and it would take days for the trailers to be unloaded, and the crop would suffer losses in quality if it rained.
By the mid 1950s chemical defoliants began to be used, so the ginning season was not reliant on the first frosts of the season, and the backlog of picked cotton became worse. Some gins built storage houses, but the cost was usually prohibitive. Farmers started building their own storage “ricks” with a roof, but that meant handling the cotton twice, and the labor costs cut their profit margin. Harvest time produced many ulcers for the cotton farmers!
In the 1970s the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Cotton Incorporated began to develop “module builders.” After the harvester or stripper dumped cotton into the builder, the cotton was compacted to a density of twelve pounds per cubic foot. (Trailers might carry six pounds per square foot.) The modules were placed on pallets of wood. The module was covered with a tarp and left in the field until the gin was ready to take it. The module builder cost $20,000 dollars and the pallets cost $400 each, and the trailer to haul the module cost $55,000. Due to these high costs, some farmers partnered in purchasing them.
By 1990 over 70 percent of Llano Estacado cotton was ginned from modules. The pallets only lasted three years, however, and Barry Reynolds, a hay truck salesman invented the palletless module builder, and in 1976 opened Reynolds, Inc. in Lubbock to manufacture the module builders. Ginners noticed the efficiency of the system and purchased many of the module movers, thereby saving the farmer the expense of owning a $60,000 module truck.Every cotton farmer has a “yard” some place on his land where all of his or her old equipment is slowly rusting away. Someday some enterprising group will realize that there is a museum “waiting to be built.” There are many stories, like that of the palletless module mover, that should be told. For example, several farmers on the Llano Estacado have gained recognition (in the industry) for the development of specific strains of cotton. Today there are organic cotton farmers and farmers that raise colored cotton (specifically bred to be something other than “standard white.” The museum could also highlight the wonderful history of the cooperative nature of the industry. Cotton farmers that work together in democratic organizations to better their business are great role models for all of us.