A Labor of Love, Sweat, and Fears

A Labor of Love, Sweat, and Fears

A Story by bigfootprint

Grandpa might quickly add, “The best of tools comes to naught in idle hands.” Spring was no time for idleness when greening fields demanded constant attention.

     Little else brings a humble farmer more in tune with his Maker than returning to his fields on a warm spring day, plowing in the ground, and inserting healthy seeds of promise into furrows blessed by the moisture of spring rains. The warm sunshine on his shoulders and the flitting of butterflies and bees in the clover, eager to begin their summer’s pollination work, tells him all is right with his world.  It is a time of renewed faith and confidence that blossoms with the sprouting of seedlings and savoring a new chance to reap the fruits of his labor. 
   Still, nothing worthwhile comes easy, Grandpa might quickly add, “The best of tools comes to naught in idle hands.” Spring was no time for idleness when greening fields demanded constant attention.  Grandpa would walk to our work site when he had time, just to share his enthusiasm and encourage us to do a good job. He might hit a few licks with our hoe or pick a large handful of cotton to stuff into our cotton sacks. 
   He would say, “Using even the lowly hoe requires a certain amount of skill, like everything else around a farm.” A farmer couldn’t expect to grow crops, livestock, trees or anything else with any degree of success if he can’t pour his whole heart and mind -- and muscle -- into knowing his goods and creating the rhythm required to help them thrive. Grandpa always said you can tell a bad farmer, but you can’t tell him much.
    For us children, hoe blades, and handles were shortened for easier handling. Despite its light weight and mini fit, I hated my hoe more with each new sunrise. First of all, it kept my hands blistered and callused. Secondly, I couldn’t keep up with the hoeing crew and couldn’t deal gracefully with criticism for a job not so well done. As I grew into the job, we would start each day of mindless toil with a pause to sharpen our cutting-edge weapon of choice. 
   Within a couple of weeks, especially after rain showers, hoeing would begin again, removing grass and weeds and hipping the dirt to support the cotton stalks. Noxious plants must be removed with roots attached. Otherwise, the next rain would mean an explosion of regrowth. We fought a constant battle with goat weeds, crab grass, Johnson grass, T-weeds, tie vines, Bermuda grass, and the like. Especially troublesome was cocoa grass, which must be removed with roots and all. It could regrow in a couple of days and spread quickly from nodules on the roots.
   Grass allowed to mature would stain or become tangled with the locks of cotton at picking time and reduce the sale value of the fiber. Generally hoeing and regular plowing would continue until a lay-by target date of July 4th. By that time the cotton was expected to overshadow and choke out most new grass growth.  “Grass won’t grow well in the shade,” Daddy would say. Unfortunately, he never applied that wisdom to us precocious boys -- more often ordering a stop to animated pursuits rather than encouraging us to proceed and learn.
   Any self-appointed crew boss would wait daily with the gathering of mostly black men, women, and older children on a designated street corner in town to await farmers looking to hire laborers. A good crew boss had his own reliable followers who relied on him to keep them employed. The crew boss was usually a reliable lead man with an adequate vehicle whom the farmer could rely on to deliver a promised work crew on time and then lead the crew through the day’s routine, ensuring a good day’s production.
   A farmer’s fears would intensify with each new stage of the year’s production. Near the end of the final lay-by round of hoeing, the farmer would leave the hoeing crew to give his small corn patch a quick final weeding. Sometimes we would get tropical gales mostly during late summer that could wipe out any chance for a break-even cotton harvest. The corn patch could look devastated; but with ensuing dry weather, we would salvage enough for livestock food and seed for next year.
   Cyclical climate holds the key to agriculture everywhere; and cotton was the favored money crop, being well suited for the growing season in Louisiana -- wet spring, a hot dry summer, and harvest time before fall rains. Most farms also produced a small corn crop for family use, livestock consumption, and seed. A fine garden provided the bulk of family nutrition and a source of pride, with vegetables often shared with kin and friends. Fields and gardens required constant toil. Cotton had to be weeded until it reached about 18 inches high and shading the ground underneath to stay ahead of the grass. Weeding and additional plantings in the garden became a never-ending process.
   Life’s clock turned slow, but I began to see early on that a successful harvest started with lots of luck, knowledge, and endless hours of plowing that involved a pair of ill-tempered mules. Now the era seems like a short time, but then it felt interminable.  About 20 acres of cotton production was all that a lone man could handle, and big families could mean more hands in the field at work time. Ravages of insects, flooding, and drought would eat away at Daddy’s once-a-year payday, often leaving barely enough profit to cover production cost, especially when any hired labor was required.  
   I would see him shed tears at the devastation after storm or insect catastrophe. To a young child, such depth of emotion in a parent’s face stirs fear and panic. Equally, his face would brighten at having a bale of cotton to haul to the gin in town late Saturday afternoons.  In a good year, he alone could pick a bale a week -- about 1,100 pounds in the weight tally book. It took every free moment working “from can till can’t.”  He kept a canvas cover spread over the trailer and its load of precious white fluff just in case it rained. 
   A gushing rain could ruin the coveted strict middling grade and sale price. An extended rainy spell would damage the locks while still in the burs, reducing the grade to strict low and spotted, barely worth hauling to market. Damaged cotton being hard to pick, Daddy would sometimes sweep it from the stalks in wads of bur and debris for the gin to spit out. The technique was called stripping. After a monsoon, the seeds could sprout inside the lint. The price was pitiful, but “sometimes you have to cut your losses,” Daddy would lament.
   I didn’t yet understand the full picture until more years had passed, but I could see the state of our world reflected in the anguish showing in his face when his long summer’s work would come to disaster. Bad harvest meant no hiring of field laborers. Sometimes a bale or two was all the insects and harsh weather would leave for him to harvest. Anything over a few bales seemed like a blessing straight from the Creator, he would say.   
   No matter the revenues, the crop required the same investment of time and labor, except for picking expenses. He could pick over the whole 20 acres in September and October if weather and health permitted. We saw little of him except in the distance across the field. His day started and ended with the sun. “Just getting by” was the watchword for most farmers.
   As tractors and accessories became available -- and a necessity, farmers needed price stability to justify the investment. Machine-picked cotton would grade low middling or worse.  From much political wrangling in Congress came a glimmer of hope for agriculture, the bedrock of the national economy.    America’s prosperity marched lockstep with food and fiber production.  
   In the farmer’s mind, commodity traders had been feasting off their power to manipulate prices, and a volatile market often left the producers to withstand devastating losses. A bad harvest could mean foreclosure and tax sale of mortgaged property. Grandpa had called operating costs “spending a dollar to make a dime.”    
   As federal floor-price support programs began to add efficiency and stability to the scene. Production acreage and equipment investments slowly expanded as finances permitted. “Farming on borrowed money is like living on borrowed time,” Daddy always said. “That’s why so many farmers have gray hair.” Without federal farm assistance, land acquisition for small independent operations had always been prohibitive. One bad year, and the bank foreclosed -- no excuses. 
   We could expect a late cold snap at Easter and then a few weeks of rain before the weather would get increasingly dry and hot through August. September usually brought a new spate of showers. Older folks liked to say, “It feels like a hundred in the shade.” And sometimes it was -- with 100 percent humidity.  Working in the fields, we watched and hoped for a gentle zephyr bringing “a breath of fresh air.”
   Hail or winds could seriously beat down the small plants or strip leaves and green bolls from mature plants. Damage to exposed locks of cotton was common, and locks could fall into the dirt, their seeds sprouting without recourse. With luck, cotton harvesting would begin in late August to mid-September. Even luckier, a second picking as second-growth bolls would ripen before the chill of October set in, with a little rain to mature the last remaining bolls. 
   A good farmer had to come across like an efficiency expert. Meager production projections at each juncture meant a constant revision of cost controls. Sometimes a farmer could hire whatever extra labor he needed. In harsh times, all he could do was work as hard as he could and hope to survive. At harvest time, every able-bodied family member -- and all the hirelings affordable -- would work feverishly to get the fluffy fibrous product off the stalks, into the trailer and onward to town for ginning. 
   Farmers kept notes and would admonish any crew boss, ordering him not to transport certain slackers ever again. Ignoring such an order often got workers barred from the fields upon arrival. Farmers were noted for carrying weapons in case of confrontation with a beefy, intimidating crew boss with imagined physical prowess, ready to fight at perceived slights and payday issues. 
   Sheriffs would call any fatal incident justifiable homicide or self-defense as in most any workplace. After all, no responsible farmer would work all year until harvest time and then create any reason for the sheriff to haul him off. I never saw such a crisis, but Daddy shared tales of fights, robberies and killings. Workers were paid at the end of each day, and so the farmer had to keep a bank bag of cash on hand -- drawn from a production loan at the bank. Daddy always said trying to farm on borrowed money was a bad idea.
   Neighboring farmers would share information about crew bosses and individual’s work habits -- good and bad. Any hint of unreliability meant blacklisting -- no margin for mistakes allowed. A good day’s work meant the beginnings of a good reputation among employers. Bad workers were worse than useless, and farmers knew their legal rights to dock pay or send away non-performers. A farmer’s once-a-year payday rested on the quality of labor. Word would spread quickly.
   With the advent of mechanization, honorable crew bosses often parlayed their good reputations into permanent regular employment -- sometimes with free lodging in an abandoned sharecropper shanty with farmers of large holdings. The pay was often meager, but farmers valued good workers and some would often give financial perks like small loans or bonuses. A good hand could always ask for an advance, but mostly the farmer was just as broke as the workman. 
   Crew bosses would get paid a little above the wage scale. Most would charge their crew members a transport fee upon return to town at workday’s end. Generally cotton choppers were paid a dollar or two a day. Pickers were paid up to $2 per 100 pounds as recorded by the weigh master, with fair shrinkage for damp cotton and foreign objects. The weigh master, usually the owner, would keep a wary eye peeled for sneaky pickers and confront those who would toss in green bolls or clods of dirt to increase their weigh-in when each bulging pick sack stuffed with 30-plus pounds of cotton was hoisted onto the balance scales. At day’s end, the workers would pay the crew boss if the farmer didn’t. Any cheating or bad habits was noted in the tally book -- information to be shared with other farmers.
   We would hear honest reports of legendary pickers who could bag three to five hundred pounds of cotton per day when conditions permitted. I could barely break the hundred-pound threshold, thinking some of those success stories must have been exaggerated. In those days, our best pickers could gather up to 300 pounds and would earn honorable mention  at pay call for their prowess. My measly payday always seemed poor thank-you for toiling full bore in the blazing sun all day.
   Careful accounting -- and any shrinkage -- was duly noted at each weigh-in. Sometimes scowls of disagreement over such notations would ensue at the end of the day when wage accounts were settled. Once in adolescence, I got a chance to run the day book for a few minutes. Quickly one older picker insisted his last weigh-in had not been recorded and that I should add 40 pounds for the oversight. Later a swarthy teen-aged picker first threatened to beat me up, insisting I record a non-existent 100-pound weigh-in. Then he begged. Then he offered me his younger sister’s company in the cotton trailer as a bribe. I didn’t understand any of it and stood my ground.  Daddy became livid when I informed him. Then he grinned and relieved me of the tally job without explanation. 
   Winnsboro was a grand center of cotton production, the lifeblood of the local economy. A moaning cotton gin or compress whistle sounded at noon and 6 p.m.  That proud foghorn sound floated in with the breeze for miles around and kept us aware of our role in our world. The compress and storage facilities had been called the world’s largest, and so businesses depended on farming success. Amid field-day excitement, a charity auction of the season’s official first bale of cotton often brought a ton of publicity for the top bidder, usually a notable banker or retail businessman. 
   The initial surge of trailer loads delivered to the half-dozen area gins usually brought the best prices because of good quality and eager buyers. A bale arriving at a gin would weigh in at about 1,100 pounds. Removal of seeds, foreign matter and moisture during processing at gin and compress would reduce the market weight of each bale to about 550 pounds.
   Ginning and secondary processing would assure the cleanest possible lint. Each operation boasted the latest upgraded of machinery and procedures every fall. The compress warehouse would store the baled commodity until buyers would purchase it, sometimes immediately, for shipment to fabric mills domestic or foreign.  Shipments meant busy days for the Doodlebug, our steam-driven rail link to the outside world. The railroad ran through the delta lands, connecting with main rail lines in Arkansas and central Louisiana. A smouldering cigarette butt could ignite a bale and burn down a packed warehouse, starting a fire almost impossible to extinguish. 
   Onset of rainy weather could delay completion of harvest until late October and mean lower prices for damaged cotton. Good grades of lint might sell for a profitable 30 cents a pound gross or more in those days. Late harvest could mean disastrous, nickel a pound prices because of staining and shrinkage. Middling cotton might bring 70 cents or much less on today’s market. Many scenarios became nightmarish for farmers. Sometimes a parching summer drought would be broken by a field-flooding deluge followed by an early frost, halting growth and leaving the cotton to rot in the boll.
   As warm days resumed, the seeds would begin to sprout in the locks and become unmarketable. In earlier days the sale of seeds accounted for a big part of farm revenues. At some point the cotton gins began keeping the seeds as part of the ginning fees. Seeds would be tested for germination. Good ratings meant easy sale.  Poor test results meant conversion to cotton seed meal for use as livestock food.  The constant stream of trash, leaves, and foreign debris had no value to recyle and was augured into a special disposal furnace that burned from September until December.  Upon ginning, a standardized sample of lint would be removed from each bale for grading and validation for the cotton buyers. Until the early 1950s, the rolled up samples would be returned to the farmer for his own use.
   Usually the fluffy fiber samples would wind up as stuffing for homemade pillows and quilts -- even mattresses -- as fancy as the farmer’s wife could produce. The best seamstresses often entered their feats of creativity to compete for prizes at the county fair.  More importantly, such bedding items contributed to perpetual sleeping comfort for farm families. Often such artful creations became prized gifts for birthdays and Christmas, as well as keepsakes. Today a handcrafted cotton-stuffed quilt can bring upwards of a thousand dollars.
   Every farm family would break out its quilting rack, mostly homemade and readied for the onset of winter season. The racks were a common sight suspended with pulleys from the living room ceiling to be quickly lowered for the daily basting chore.  Every family member, including the men, would gather to make the intricate stitching of floral or caricature designs under careful supervision by the homemaker. Colorful words sometimes flowed when the mistress of the house ordered production halted until she could rip out and repair faulty stitching. Sewing clubs and quilting bees provided a touching practice of sharing and togetherness among families and neighbors.
   With the onset of agribusiness trends, cotton marketing procedures and policies soon shifted.  The once-coveted annual samples would fade into oblivion, losing out to tighter market margins. Daddy would come home near tears, lamenting how the gins were overwhelmed and running weeks behind, or the cotton prices had fallen through the floor. It was common for a farmer to resume picking, spreading out his daily weigh-ins on a canvas tarpaulin on the ground because of demurrage delays at the gin. Sometimes the devious buyers played a stalling game, slowing their buying  to get the lowest price while leaving the farmers hung out to dry.
   Sustained rainy weather meant pathetic, knobby locks of cotton that refused to get fluffy in the sun and remained stuck to the burs. The burs deteriorated and stained the fiber. Any possible success at harvesting meant stripping the cotton from the stalk, bolls and stuck-on leaves. Many a time Daddy would wilt at the news his whole harvest had been graded  strict low and spotted, worth only a few pennies a pound --with sale slow in coming. 
   Slowly the USDA evolved programs offering pooling with a price floor aimed at keeping the wolves from the door.  Agriculture Department cotton rating charts blanked my meager understanding, but we were assured it was all fair and scientific. Middling grade rating was the norm for our short-staple delta lands cotton.  We would hear about upland cotton of the plateaus of West Texas, next best thing to the long-staple industry standard of Egypt’s Nile Valley.
   In those days a portion of the seeds would be held back for replanting in the spring or grinding into cattle feed because of its high protein content.  Excess cotton seed commonly passed freely among neighbors when a second or third planting would be necessary.   In today’s era of genetic engineering, a farmer can be imprisoned and fined many thousands of dollars for planting home grown seeds, which mostly won’t germinate properly anyway.  Genetically engineered and patented seeds -- called terminator seeds -- remain the bailiwick of seed companies like Monsanto, which often help finance federal election campaigns and manipulate industry standards.
   In years when garden and cotton production fell short, we ate lots of dry beans and wild game. I slowly began to grasp the big picture. In about Grade 6, one of my teachers conducted a study of our country nutrition practices. She required the class to hand in a daily report of the family mealtime reality. That year, my daily diet regimen comprised squirrel dumplings, canned tomatoes, and black eyed peas -- with store-bought pork and beans on Sunday. When all that faced out, we ate lots dried beans. Of course in bumper-crop years, prices would shrink to practically nothing when the cotton buyers would vacillate upon analyzing the market, declaring it to be saturated because of surplus production or weak world demand.
    We were never at a loss for work. When field work was done, daily chores meant cleanup of the lawn, barns and feeder lots, livestock tending and fence mending. Then there were seasonal jobs too. In disaster years, farmers would seek a second job doing whatever he was good at during winter months. Some would hire out for a few extra dollars by repairing equipment, carpentering or store-keeping in town. With passage of each season, the weather would change and another set of chores would begin. After the harvest, there was hog butchering at first frost, firewood cutting in late fall, crop and garden planting at first signs of spring, crop tending all summer. Off-season meant livestock chores and fence-mending. 
   Each season carried its own special challenges. Summer was toughest for me, with the hot dirt scorching my bare feet and the hot sun’s rays bypassing the protection of my frayed straw hat. When Daddy decided we were old enough, we would join him to work under his watchful eye in the fields and garden, hoeing or picking cotton, picking beans or collecting freshly dug potatoes and such. An old straw had was part of the daily routine. One of my saddest memories involved my arrival for church services one Sunday morning. I had unthinkingly donned my dilapidated workaday straw hat, which I was still wearing when I took my seat near the center aisle. The stares and giggles were devastating, except for the preacher, who smiles and motioned to me to remove the eyesore.
   Grandpa had always talked about how a farm is a harsh task master, where hardships and dedication make it a labor of love. Daddy might say having your own farm is kind of like working at home and having a tough boss lady always watching to keep you on your toes.

© 2020 bigfootprint

Author's Note

Thinking back over my years as a child in the Land of Cotton, I recall good times and bad -- but always memorable. I am 78 now, and not many of the old-timers remain to swap stories with.

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Added on June 28, 2020
Last Updated on July 10, 2020
Tags: Family farm culture, Land of Cotton, Growing up country