Cottonpickin’ engineering

In the early 1950s, when I was a small child, cottonpicking here in the San Joaquin Valley was still done by hand. I even had a small sack to take to the field when I accompanied my mother to pay the workers. I was allowed to pull the soft white fiber from the stalks nearest to me and stuff them in my bag. I think my dad even gave me a quarter (big wages) for what I managed to pick in the time it took my mother to hand out the wages to that day’s pickers.IMG_4737

The cotton was dumped in large trailers and, when full, they were pulled by pickup to the gin where my dad often worked, sampling the bales as they came off the press. It was those samples that determined how good the cotton was and how much the farmer would be paid for his crop.

Later on, when mechanization took over, Daddy hired another farmer who had a mechanical cotton picker to come into the field and get the cotton harvested. Again, though, the fluffy stuff was dumped into a trailer and hauled to the gin. This was still the way it was done when Daddy died in 1968, a few months before the cotton harvest.

In the 1970s a new method of getting the cotton to the gin was devised. Those trailers were abandoned for metal boxes that compacted the cotton into modules 71261954or “riks” which were then covered with tarp and could sit in the field until the gin was ready for the cotton.  For decades now I have seen these lineups of riks in the fields and at the gins as we travel across this wide valley to go to San Francisco which sits on the other side of the hills in a world where all of this ag business is foreign to the inhabitants.

Last year, instead of the rectangular modules, I started seeing rolls of cotton IMG_4742sitting in the fields and at the gins. How were those made? I contacted the newspaper’s ag writer and he sent me a video of the machine that picked and rolled the cotton all at the same time. Another step was eliminated. Oh, how I wanted to see one of these pickers in action.

Three weeks ago, returning from taking the small grandchildren home, I kept my eyes peeled as we again drove across the valley floor, through acres and acres of farmland. There, across from the highway, were those large rolls. Where were the machines? Going a few more miles, we found them. They are sort of like a giant army, traveling through the rows, 12 at a time, gobbling up the cotton from the stalks, processing the fiber until the roll is made, and then depositing it at the end of the row.IMG_4736 Sort of like a giant chicken laying an egg.IMG_4749

We sat for awhile, watching these machines, and I could almost hear my father saying, “well, will you look at that, what a great piece of equipment.” He would be one of the first to have it come through his field. We’ve come a long way in my lifetime.

6 responses to “Cottonpickin’ engineering

  1. Are you sure they are not Paul Bunyan’s marshmallows? 🙂

  2. Yes indeed we have witnessed so many changes is our lifetimes, and before my mother passed away last Nov, she and I discussed even more changes in her lifetime. She was intimidated by technology. I wonder if our grandchildren are interested in hearing about what it was like when we were kids. My children ask questions occasionally and are interested in my version of my world when I was young.

  3. How odd. I had no idea cotton was grown in CA. I grew up in the South where cotton was King. Dianne

    • Dianne, it’s a huge cash crop here in the San Joaquin Valley. We grow a very long staple cotton that is used in very fine fabrics. The south tends to grow a more short staple. And, yes, I know a lot about cotton. Not only was my dad a cotton farmer but also on the board of the gin, I worked for a cotton magazine right out of college, and for 11 years I was sales and traffic for a cottonseed oil company.

  4. I didn’t know you had cotton there. I remember when my son was in Mali with the Peace Corps. Cotton picking is all done by hand there. He tried it and said it is back breaking work.

  5. Pingback: Community storytelling project | Dkzody's Weblog

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