There are many opportunities for learning about agriculture in our education systems–especially in college. One of these opportunities let me learn a lot about the plant that our jeans, shirts, and pillow cases come from; cotton.
As a current student at Iowa State, I have been involved in the Agronomy Club for four years. Through Agronomy Club, I have had the opportunity to attend SASES (Students of Agronomy, Soils, and Environmental Sciences) meetings in various locations throughout the U.S. This spring, our SASES meetings were held in Lubbock, Texas, and were hosted by the Texas Tech Agronomy Club.
SASES meetings are studded with many kinds of opportunities. In our fall meetings, students compete in many kinds of competitions, including research posters, speeches, President’s Trophy, club poster, and quiz bowl. Both fall and spring meetings include keynote speakers, tours of local agricultural facilities, educational sessions, and SASES meetings with representatives from universities across the country.
Though there are many opportunities to learn throughout the meetings, I think some of the most beneficial are the tours.
Just last week, we toured multiple agricultural facilities in the Lubbock area; all of which were extremely interesting coming from an Iowa point of view. Throughout these tours and educational sessions, I learned a huge amount about cotton production in particular and what that means for the areas that produce it.
Lubbock is in the “high plains” of West Texas, somewhat near the base of the panhandle. This area is known for high winds, little rain, and lots of cotton. In this area, about 40% of growers irrigate their fields, leaving about 60% to grow “rainfed” or “dryland” cotton, as stated in a session led by the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc.
This fact alone is interesting coming from Iowa, as we rarely, if ever, irrigate our fields. Here in Iowa, rain isn’t only ample, it can even be an obstacle in agriculture production. In Iowa, when we think about water issues, we may think about field runoff, water quality, erosion, buffer strips, cover crops, drainageways, or other ways to manage all of the rain we do receive in a way that is beneficial to its quality in the stream, as well as the character of the soil it runs through. These challenges are very different from the challenges in Texas, where they are continuing to look for new ways to irrigate their crops as efficiently as possible, so as to help conserve the Ogallala Aquifer as well as optimize their yield and their bottom line.
After the crop has been planted and maintained, it has to be harvested (video). Because of the high winds in Texas, they are forced to grow varieties that hold the cotton more tightly in the boll than varieties in places like Georgia can grow. This fact means that they employ the use of cotton strippers instead of cotton pickers. Cotton strippers are used to harvest the cotton in the field, but will strip all of the material off of the cotton stalk. Cotton pickers, on the other hand, will pick the lint itself off of the plant, meaning less plant material is collected.
Many farmers in the Lubbock area will use cotton strippers that collect the plant material and lint into a basket. This basket will be emptied into a “boll buggy”, that transports the material into a module builder. The module builder compacts the linty material into a large block that can be transported to the cotton gin.
Here is an interesting video of how a cotton gin operates. At the beginning, you see the large module come in. From there, you can watch as the module is broken up, lint is separated from the seed (minute 3), the lint is packed into a bale (4:45), samples are taken for grading (6:00), and identifying barcodes are added (6:45).
Our first tour in Lubbock was of the Farmers Cooperative Compress—essentially a cotton warehouse. After the cotton completes the ginning process, it is taken to a warehouse like the one we visited, and stored until it is sold.
Cotton is a non-fungible crop, which means that not every bale is created equal. In grain co-ops like we have in Iowa, every bushel will fetch roughly the same price, and will be pooled together. This basically means that the goods are interchangeable, and therefore fungible. Cotton works differently, as each bale (approximately 500 lbs.) is graded and marked individually. From there, the compress organizes the bales, and sells each bale independently to the textile company. This way, the consumer can select multiple bales of similar grades to ensure consistency of their product.
What’s amazing about this operation is how huge it is. This one location had numerous buildings, each with row and section numbers to help organize every individual bale. In order to fill every order, workers at the location would work in pairs to use small, forklift-like machines to hook and collect the necessary bales.
From the compress, we drove past a ginning facility. There, our driver pointed at huge mounds of cotton seed. He explained that cotton ginning, or the process of pulling the fluffy lint from the cotton seed and packing it into bales, is a very energy-expensive process. Fortunately, the seed itself is also a valuable product, and is used in making cottonseed oil. This co-product, as they refer to it, helps cover the cost of ginning the cotton, and helps bring more revenue to the industry.
Because of the various tours and sessions we heard from, I was able to learn a great deal about production of this interesting crop, and also much of an impact cotton makes in the Texas economy. It is amazing how diverse the United States is in agriculture, and how diverse each individual crop is. To learn more about the cotton industry, click here or here.
Though we may see a lot of corn and soybeans just outside our windows, our neighbors to the south will see fields of white, and that is interesting and important, too!