High-tech cotton harvesting

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, March 11th. 

You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so happy to have you along today! Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Cotton.

It’s called the fabric of our lives for good reason. Cotton’s used to make everything from sheets to socks to rope to American dollar bills, to cooking oil.

Cotton is grown in more than 80 countries. Today we return to a tiny town in Mississippi for another visit with Farmer Lonnie Fortner. You may remember he was harvesting peanuts in September, but he also grows cotton.

REICHARD: Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson takes us back to Fortner’s fields, back when they were white and waiting for harvest. Here’s the story.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: While the North gets the real kind of icy precipitation, cotton country has its own snow. Each fall, wisps of it litter roadsides on the way to the gin. 

FORTNER: [Beeping] Alright, now we’re picking…

Lonnie Fortner is a second-generation farmer who’s been driving tractors most of his life. But today he’s riding in an enclosed, air-conditioned cab in a state-of-the-art harvesting machine — a 2020 John Deere. 

FORTNER: It drives itself, which that makes it nice. I can keep my eyes on other things going on. 

It’s an interesting contrast. Him riding the high-tech cotton picker while bringing in a crop as old as Egypt.

FORTNER: This is modern cotton picking here. It’s a whole lot funner than the old way. Just costs a lot more.

So how much is his piece of rolling technology worth? It’s a massive machine, requiring a steel ladder for access. It can comb through six rows of cotton at a time, doing in days what used to take weeks. Would you guess equipment like this comes at a cost of two hundred thousand dollars? A half-million?  

FORTNER: They, they seem to go up every year, but right now it’s about 900,000. Yup. You got to pick a lot of cotton with them… 

Fortner says he couldn’t afford it without an arrangement he has with a fellow farmer whose harvest season runs a few weeks behind his. 

FORTNER: We go in together with him for the picker, and we pick my crop first and it goes to Mobile, and he picks his crop. 

Inside the picker’s cab, a bay of windows surrounds the driver on three sides. Fortner must deal with all sorts of buttons, levers, and a control panel that tells him things like the thickness of the bale being formed.

FORTNER: We’re at 63.4 inches. And so it’s going to build to 90, to 90 inches…

When the indicator reaches the magic number, a camera lets him watch as the round bale gets a plastic wrapping.      

FORTNER: I want to see that wrap show up in that camera. If not, I got problems and there it is right there. 

After that, the machine lets Fortner know it’s time to eject the bale. 

FORTNER: I choose when to eject it because you’d hate for it to eject on its own, going onto a power line…  

But even with all the technological advances, farming still bears the effects of the Fall. It’s done by the sweat of the brow, and wild animals cause problems. 

In Mississippi, wild hogs cause more than $60 million of damage each year. Deer are contenders, too.  

FORTNER: We spend a lot of money and effort, uh, keeping trying to keep the animals out of the field. We’ve got about 2,500 acres of our farm behind electric fence. 

Fortner employs one man nearly full time just to maintain the fences, especially in the spring. 

FORTNER: When we first start planting, we start putting the fences up, getting them hot, and he maintains the fences until the crop gets big enough that they can sort of stay ahead of the deer…

They even have surprise visits from black bears.

FORTNER: I was on one pass, and he was right out from me, but I had my head down. I never saw him there. He said the bear stood up and looked at the cotton picker.

Today, one bale of cleaned cotton lint can make more than 200 pairs of jeans or 1,200 T-shirts. That means farmers like Fortner are important. But with or without all the advances in the industry, he says he couldn’t do it without his wife’s support. 

FORTNER: The day I told her that I wanted to quit and start back farming, if she would’ve said no, we wouldn’t be here. But she said yes. And 25 years later, here we are.

They both call cotton fields beautiful and sometimes ride the picker together. But even a $900,000 piece of equipment isn’t infallible. 

FORTNER: …on both fronts — whew! [Sound of equipment failure]

He climbs down from the cab and removes something from underneath. Manually. Then he’s back to the picker and a bale that’s wrapped and ready. 

FORTNER: When we get ready to drop it, we’ll set it down. There it is. Next step for him is Bolton, to the cotton gin.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Carlisle, Mississippi.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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