I was up in the Delta in mid-September and was surprised, although in retrospect I shouldn’t have been, to see that the cotton harvest was well underway. After reading up about it, I realized that the extremely early, long and hot summer was the explanation for this early harvest. I remember a similar trip to the Delta during our extremely rainy fall last year and how disheartening it was to see the soaked fields full of dripping and drooping cotton, unable to be harvested. As we all know, “when the cotton balls get rotten, you can’t pick very much cotton.”
According to reports, this year’s cotton harvest is much better than expected after the last two or three disappointing years, but even still, this was the second consecutive year in recent memory that cotton was not the primary crop in Mississippi, replaced by corn and soybeans.
An iconic image of the Delta is the metal cotton gin, which used to dot the countryside, at least one in every town or rural community. The various generations of gins can be distinguished by what kind of metal (corrugated is often early 20th century, raised-seam is later), where they are located (early gins are generally next to railroad tracks and in town, while later gins are on major highways), and whether they’re still operating. When I first moved to Mississippi, back in the 1990s, there were still a few early gins operating, but nowadays I only see the large consolidated operations going full bore, while the older, smaller gins are either used for storage or have just been abandoned completely. Meanwhile, those round grain storage bins have taken the place of gins, and there are only around 70 gins operating in the whole state. I know it’s part of a changing economy, and I don’t romanticize the “Cotton is King” era, but still, it bothers me to see the Delta looking like the Midwest.
A New York Times article from last year, “Mississippi Farmers Trade Cotton Plantings for Corn” explains the economic reasons for the consolidation and decline of cotton gins:
Jason Colquett, owner of the Crossroads Gin, said his plant ginned 33,000 bales of cotton in 2006, 24,000 in 2007 and 15,000 in 2008. He does not expect to reach 10,000 this year. That has meant a loss of jobs, as it has at other gins across the state. Mr. Colquett’s repair crew has dropped to four full-time workers, from nine, and his ginning season has been reduced to 30 days, from 90.
I stopped at one abandoned gin, the Albin Gin near Webb in Tallahatchie County. I’m afraid I don’t know what all the other interesting structures at this gin are for, but maybe somebody out there can chime in and help explain it all. The gin still contains a few pieces of machinery, but seems mostly stripped.