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Harvesting the 'fabric of our lives'

It takes more than a month for farmer Tom Leahy to harvest his cotton crop. (Photo by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)

Despite its theoretical absence of color, circles of white cotton added a splash to the varying shades of brown covering the fields of southwest Kansas on a recent mid-October afternoon.

It’s harvest time, when the fruits of labor bloom. When it comes to cotton, the fruit literally comes to bear.

After a couple of rains in the area messed up my plans to join the cotton harvest, the ground finally dried up and I hopped into the cotton stripper with farmer Tom Leahy to make the slow trek around his Stevens County, Kan., cotton fields.

Thankfully, his harvest lasts more than a month, so the much-needed rain hadn’t entirely washed out my plans.

“It’s a little slower harvest for cotton than the other grain crops,” Leahy said. “You just don’t drive as fast with your equipment.”

While harvesting, we crawled about 3 miles per hour and the header on the front of the harvester is just 15 feet wide. Compare that to wheat, where Leahy will harvest at about 5 miles per hour and create a swath of up to 36 feet.

The cotton harvest is also a bit more labor intensive. Leahy had seven family members scattered across the horizon operating strippers, boll buggies and module builders.

The cotton stripper looks quite intimidating with a claw-like header and it lives up to its name, stripping the cotton right off without actually cutting the stalk. It’s a far cry from picking the cotton by hand, a job I can’t imagine. The cotton itself is soft to the touch, but the plant has other thoughts. Just walking through the fields, the stalks were scratching at my jeans.

Leahy told me back in August that because of the drought he didn’t expect much from his dryland acres. Fast forward two months without any significant rain and all of Leahy’s 2,800 dryland acres failed to make a crop. Thanks to irrigation though, there’s still about 7,300 acres of cotton to harvest.

Tom Leahy has grown cotton on his farm in southwest Kansas for more than a decade. Watch Leahy and his crew harvest this year's crop. (Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)

“It just stayed too dry with too much heat,” Leahy said. “The heat wouldn’t have been bad if we had a little help from Mother Nature with moisture.”

Overall U.S. cotton production is down as well. The latest forecast shows 16.3 million 480-pound bales, down 10 percent from last year.

All told, Leahy says he’ll come away with about 14,000 bales that each weigh 500 pounds.

Although record cotton prices came back down to earth, Leahy still sold almost two-thirds of his crop for about 90 to 95 cents a pound. After averaging 45 cents a pound for many years, it’s the highest price he has received.

“When we were planting in the spring, cotton prices were $1.20 to $1.40,” Leahy said “We expected $1.10 maybe, but the markets went down. It’s still a better market than we’ve had in recent years.”

After a pass around half the cotton circle, it was time for Leahy to unload his cotton. A boll buggie pulled up alongside to collect his haul and bring it back to the module builder. The light, fluffy stuff flies in the air after hitting the bottom of the buggie.  

There is about 6,000 pounds of lint in each 32-foot by 8-foot by 8-foot rectangular module. Each module weighs 20,000 pounds, Leahy said.

Forty-five percent of that weight is cotton seed, which Leahy said will provide a nice financial bonus this year. Because of the drought, ranchers are looking for alternative livestock feeds, including cottonseed. At $290 a ton for cottonseed, Leahy said it’s more than double last year’s price.

One thing I hear a lot is that farmers are always looking ahead, planning for the next season. Sure enough, 2012 came up while Leahy was harvesting 2011.

Although he has grown cotton for more than 10 years, Leahy said he never stops learning. And this year’s drought provided even more lessons than usual.

“This year, I think because of the drought, we learned to appreciate the different varieties (of cotton),” Leahy said. “We have a lot of plans next year to make the cotton fit the acres that we’re going to plant it on and how to manage it better.”

After a while, I left Leahy to his harvest and walked around the fields. Cotton modules sat in groups on the edge of the fields waiting to be picked up by the Northwest Cotton Growers Coop Gin in Moscow, Kan., about 15 miles away.

Despite the best efforts of his cotton stripper, some trash (like leaves and twigs) does make its way into the modules. It’s the job of the gin to separate everything and get the cotton ready for shipping.

I got a brief tour of the Moscow gin back in the spring when it was idle, but now that cotton ginning season is in full swing I’m excited to check out the operation.

Check back later this month to see the fruits of Eli Whitney’s labor.