Cotton Farmers

The farmer, seated uneasily before the lens of a video camera, has to be prodded to open up about his life. If you ask the right questions, and let the silence hang for a minute, he gets rolling and talks of the genetically-strengthened cotton strains and the less-toxic herbicides. The tractors that cost more than a fleet of cars and that all but drive themselves. The empty homes close to his, some grand and some gritty, sad reminders of fellow farmers and field hands who have moved on to another place or another life. But after a half hour or so, as the August heat reaches its unbearable peak, he begins to fidget, glancing out the window, anxious to get back out there, even though he knows full well that a lost half hour in this late season will not make or break his crop. As a rule, these men are shod in mud-encrusted boots, and those boots start tapping if the video session goes on a bit long. So you wrap it up, thank them, and watch those boots dash back out the door, like a child kept too long from the playground. The wives linger, offering apologies and coffee and cookies, grateful for the company and anyone seeming to give a damn that they are holding their own in a world that is slowly evaporating.

These cotton farmers are as scarce now as the hulking steel-framed gins that once dotted the flatlands between Memphis and Vicksburg. Most of the gins are now empty, rusting shells, and the men who steered their wagons under the canopies have died or retired or moved on to a more forgiving crop. As we moved down our list of possible families, the responses were always gracious but often negative. They had shifted to soybeans and corn, they had sold all their combines, or they could no longer handle the long drives and lonely nights in the deep Delta darkness.

We found a handful of men and women who remain where their fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers planted their flags. Each spring, they weigh the odds and walk the land, recognizing every turnrow and low point and subtle rise over a thousand or two thousand or even eleven thousand acres. And, once again, as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did, they will buy the seed and the fertilizer and service the tractors and the combines and hire the cropdusters and begin the daily prayers for more rain or no rain and sunshine and cool nights and no tropical storms in September and no frost in early October. And their children, muttering about the social challenges of being way out there and never having a next-door neighbor, will slowly, slowly find their own souls tied to that dirt.

— Mary Carol Miller, From In Cotton

Mary Carol Miller, “Cotton Farmers,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 09 Dec 2022.

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