A cotton “stripper” on Ted Schrimsher’s farm removes lint from the cotton plant for harvest, Friday. (Emily Russo Miller Photo)
A day before harvest, Ted Schrimsher drives his white Chevrolet pickup down the perimeter of his six plots of cotton growing across 1,000 acres of land near the old Dexter highway. The cotton stalks are perfectly planted three inches apart and are buried about three-quarters of an inch deep in the soil.
The cotton seeds were planted in early spring, but now in late fall, the stalks stand about three feet tall and sway in the wind. He examines the lint that has sprung from the cotton bolls, or the green seedpod the size of a walnut that protects 30 cottonseeds inside, and marvels at the lovely sight of white blossoms as far as the eye can see.
The 83-year-old Oklahoma- native, who has been farming in Roswell alongside his identical twin brother, Fred, for the past 45 years, is the last remaining cotton grower in the Great Plains area. And he has a prediction.
â€œCotton is back,â€ he declared.
Long before the arrival of chile, cotton was Roswellâ€™s golden cash crop. The soft, downy fiber was typically grown in southern states from Virginia to Louisiana where the warm climate accommodated strong germination and growth. But as irrigation facilities became more available, cotton made its way westward until Texas and California became the largest cotton producers in the U.S. in 1995. New Mexico, simultaneously, also began harvesting cotton, especially in southeastern counties.
Roswell was first introduced to the cotton industry from pioneers such as Louie Lewis. Lewis owned a chain of cotton gins in Oklahoma and Texas, and moved to Roswell in 1925 to build and organize the Roswell Cotton Oil Mill, later known as the Pecos Valley Cotton Oil Company. His massive mill house stood near the railroad tracks at the intersection of Second Street and Virginia Avenue. For years thereafter, cotton reigned as Roswellâ€™s primary crop.
Though a pound of cotton was only worth about 30 cents, farmers didnâ€™t see that many alternatives in the arid climate. That is, until the chile, which first arrived in Roswell about 25 years ago, as did the dairy farms. Cotton was virtually wiped off the map in town.
The 12 to 15 cotton gin mills in town were soon vacated, and today, only one functioning mill operates in Chaves County. Lewisâ€™ Cotton Oil Mill also shut down, and though it is still standing at Second and Virginia, it is covered with graffiti, littered with wooden pallet stockpiles and enclosed by a barbed wire fence. King Cotton was defeated.
â€œIt was just a change in philosophy,â€ Larry Hobson, a fifth-generation farmer in Roswell, said. â€œThe cotton market went down, dairies appeared. The dairies made an economic boost in this area, and everybody shifted to dairy. It kind of changed things around.â€
But Schrimsher, along with several economists, thinks cotton is poised for a comeback. On a global scale, the price of cotton is the highest itâ€™s been since May 1995, when the price of cotton was 115.7 cents per pound. According to the National Cotton Council of America, a pound of cotton yielded 104.7 cents in September, compared to 64.07 cents last September. The calendar year average also spiked, jumping from 62.75 cents per pound last year to 88.68 cents per pound in 2010. Schrimsher expects to make $500 per bale this year, a $200 increase from last year.
â€œThis is probably the best crop I have ever grown,â€ Schrimsher said, smiling at the thought of his good fortune.
Cotton Inc.â€™s Cotton Board, an oversight and administrative arm of the Cotton Research & Promotion Program, attributed the sky-high prices to a slight decrease in world production and a slight increase in world consumption. But the board warned that the market has been volatile over the past several weeks.
â€œSupply concerns are a driving force behind recent price increases and volatility,â€ a recent economic update from the board read.
Likewise, the National Cotton Council said that the cotton market is still recovering from the global recession.
â€œThe lingering effects and uncertainties of the economic downturn continue to present challenges to the U.S. cotton industry. However, data suggest that the worst of the storm has been weathered, and prospects for recovery and growth are replacing the recent concerns,â€ read a statement in the Economic Outlook for U.S. Cotton 2010 report.
Local agronomist, Robert Flynn, said he thinks it is possible for cotton to once again become a major crop for Roswell, but that would depend on several factors, like whether farmers can afford the necessary equipment. Flynn also added, â€œAs long as thereâ€™s infrastructure to support the cotton industry in the Pecos Valley, the price will support that infrastructure. Then there should always be some amount of cotton to grow.â€
Whether the cotton markets will remain strong or not has yet to be determined, but one fact remains certain: cotton production in Chaves County is up. Production of cotton increased from 2,800 bales in 2007 to 4,100 bales in 2008.
Schrimsher said that he would continue to grow cotton for the next few seasons, although he admitted, â€œIt might be a few years before cotton will be good for a few years.â€ As he drove back from the cotton fields to meet his brother in the farmâ€™s of fices, he parked his truck by a tree that had a sign nailed into it that read, â€œChili peppers growers parking only.â€
Ted Schrimsher’s cotton stretches as far as the eye can see before the harvest. (Mark Wilson Photo)