I got cotton in the bottom land
It’s up and growin’ and I got a good stand
My good wife and them kids of mine
Gonna get new shoes come pickin’ time.
Johnny Cash, “Pickin’ Time”
It’s November. Pickin’ time.
I realized this the other day when my buddy-editor Phillip sent me some pictures of tenant farmers taken back in the summer of 1936 and asked me some questions about them. Not sure how I got to be a “go-to” guy on the subject, but Phillip got lucky. I knew a little about Dixie’s small farm cotton culture.
Just a little.
Although my family had a “farm,” we raised cattle (and corn to feed them) – not cotton.
However, in the summers of 1957 and 1958, when I was in my early teens, I spend a lot of time around real dirt farmers, and what they farmed was cotton.
In 1956, my Daddy’s tractor business went bottom up – victim of an Eisenhower recession and GOP farm policies that favored agribusiness over the rest. Since most of the farms in our county were small, family affairs, and since it was becoming more profitable to plant pines rather than row crops, no one was buying tractors.
So Daddy went back to teaching school, which was what he did before trying his hand at business.
When summer came, he earned extra money measuring cotton.
Today, not many folks know about cotton measuring. Back then the New Deal allotment program was still in place. To better control production and keep prices stable, government planners assigned each farm an allotment based on some bureaucratic calculus I still don’t understand. Put simply the big farms were allowed to plant big fields and the small farms were told to keep it small.
In my county, where cotton was usually raised to supplement an income, few of the fields we measured were more than 20 acres — most far less.
To make sure farmers did not plant beyond what the government allowed, “field agents” were sent out to measure the planting and determine the acreage. If the farmer overplanted, he was told to plow it up or pay a fine. The farmer had to decide whether it was best to pay it off or plow it under. Thus another element of uncertainty was added to a way of life already at the mercy of weather, weeds and weevils.
Weekday mornings we piled into Daddy’s WWII surplus Jeep and off we went. When we arrived at a farm, we invited the owner to accompany us and watch while I took one end of the “chain” (Daddy held the other) and crisscrossed the field getting the measurements. Then Daddy would plot what was planted on a large (3’ X 3’) aerial photograph. At the end of the day we took this back to the office, where the acreage was calculated.
I learned a lot those summers.
As we rode from farm to farm Daddy told stories about family and friends, cracked jokes I could not repeat in front of Mama, recited poetry, sang songs. It was only later, when I was raising children of my own, that I realized how I got something most kids never got – days with their Daddies.
During those months we met a lot of farmers, but one stands out from the rest.
He was an elderly black man who took us out to his patch. He was proud of it, and should have been.
The middles were plowed clean, the rows chopped, plants growing tall and healthy. If there was ever a field capable of producing that prayed-for-bale-to-the-acre, this was it.
Only there was no acre.
That was his allotment – two-tenths of an acre.
We measured it quickly and when we were done, I asked him why he went to all that trouble for such a small crop.
He considered me, kindly, and said “I gotta have something for my mule to do.”
I had seen the animal in the lot by the barn. Fat, sleek, and like its owner, graying.
Man and mule, bound together by that slender thread called cotton. Each needing, depending on, the other.
Soon they would lay by the crop and come fall it would be picked, ginned and sold.
Then the farmer could pay his debts, buy things for the family, and get some sweet feed for the mule.
After that the farmer and his friend could rest till it was time to plow again.
That was their world, a world made of cotton.
Last Sunday mornin’ when they passed the hat
It was still nearly empty back where I sat.
But the preacher smiled and said “That’s fine,
The Lord’ll wait till pickin’ time.”
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I got cotton in the bottom land