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.
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 or “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 sitting 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. Sort of like a giant chicken laying an egg.
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.