It all starts here 9

Note: I’ll be out of the office Wed-Fri. I’m traipsing off to Yale to give my talk on Thursday.

It’s getting to be that time again. Spring. Time to plant the cotton. If you recall from the last two years running, I follow the cotton crop from the field that lies halfway between my office and the house. As I was driving by yesterday, I saw the field was recently plowed. What’s more, it was being irrigated.

If you know anything about agriculture, you know that if a field is being irrigated, Mr. Farmer is near by. While watering is largely a passive activity, it requires minding. So, I looked around to see if I could finally score an interview with my local cotton farmer. As luck would have it, there were two.

Below are (left to right) Lalo Vasquez and Juan Serrano. Jovial men, Juan says Lalo is better known as “Piporro” or Shorty. Juan did most of the talking. He works for the landowner. Apparently, this plot turned hands over the winter. Lalo and Juan tend this field of 40 acres along with 150 more up the road at mile marker 27. Juan says he’s been tending cotton for seven years. He says that now that things are automated, the landowner makes more money, less work for people like him. He doesn’t like the automated picking machine, says it makes the cotton cochino.

Now I’ll just bet you think this is a languid low stress job -other than the incredibly long working hours. It turns out, they’re commuters. That surprised me. These men commute from Hatch which is about thirty miles north of Las Cruces. By the way, Hatch is the chile capital of the world.

Chatting a bit, I asked how many bales of cotton they get from this field. Juan supplied the yield in terms of “machos” (photo of a macho below). These are the huge huge bales. Juan says they get about 2 machos from a forty acre plot. He says that equals maybe 15-20 bales depending. Some parts of the field are more productive than others. From the macho bales, it’s sent to the local gin. Piporro says the entire valley produces about 1,200 machos (his mother’s cousin manages the gin and he works there part time). The cotton is cleaned of debris and the seed is separated and sold as cattle feed. The cleaned cotton is then re-baled into the standard size bale weighing 500 pounds and shipped off. He claims quite a bit of it goes to a place just north of Austin. Who’d be using it there? We were wondering if he meant a Texas city that begins with “A” because Amarillo is more likely. Lubbock (somewhat close by) is the “silicone valley” of cotton.

Last year, Eric and I watched a cotton harvest south of town (never did write about it). The harvesters trundle up and down the field. Then they come over and dump their load into this -well- macho maker. The macho maker jostles and compresses the cotton as it’s loaded.

Speaking of productivity, Juan mentioned weather and temperature. We’ve all heard too much rain is a problem but I always thought of it in terms of over watering a house plant. Juan says if it rains too much, the humidity makes the flowers sticky so they don’t open. Who knew?

I asked Juan what was the biggest problem with irrigating. He said “mice”. That surprised me. He said the little buggers dig tunnels between the furrows and the water can leak out into the street. Somebody has to mind the field day and night while the water’s running. They do it in shifts and sleep overnight in the cab of their truck. Otherwise, you kind of stand around with a hoe and hope that people (presumably like me) stop by to chat to tide the tedium.

Then I asked about the process, I was thinking they’d planted seed if they were watering. Juan said no, not yet. First the field is plowed to break up the big clods. Then it’s irrigated. Once that seeps in, a truck sprays fertilizer and breaks up more of the clods that were softened up with the water. Then they plant the seed. They do all of this in rotation. He says they’re laying seed in the other acreage up the road all this week and next. Hoping to get photos of the seed being spread, I asked when they’d spread the cotton seed on these forty acres. He said they weren’t. At least not this year. This year they’re planting corn. ~sigh~

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  1. dosfashionistas says:

    It would be interesting to find statistics on the tensile strength of cotton thread say 40-50 years ago and contrast that with tested strength today. The mechanical pickers mix a lot of trash (leaves, dirt, bolls) in with the cotton and it all gets processed together. How has that affected cotton thread (or fabric) as we know it? I wonder if Texas Woman’s University has done any research along those lines? They do quite a bit of textile research. Or have more efficient cleaning processes been developed to compensate? A bit of useless curiosity on my part. Sarah@dosfashionistas

  2. Karen C says:

    Plainting corn, heh? It seems that a lot of farmers are turning to corn for fuel, and it worries me. Milk prices are already affected by the wheat farmers who switched to corn. Can cotton/fabric prices be next?

  3. Very interesting. I am originally from El Paso and come from a farming family and didn’t know all of this. I guess I should of asked more. I love your posts, I always tell my students at UNT about them.


  4. Eric H says:


    Odds are that the corn will be used for cattle feed, not fuel (though it’s really a moot point since corn is a fungible commodity). That field has been corn before, and all of the corn grown in this valley tends to go to cattle feed.

    The fact that they are not producing cotton will have very little effect on the price of cloth since our heavily subsidized cotton farmers are paid more for the cotton than it is worth on the world market. Partly because of that, there is a glut in the cotton market. Moving our farmers to corn is bad for Mexican corn farmers, but good for African cotton farmers.


    Odds are that the tensile strength is much greater today. Cotton, Inc. runs a cotton research program, and the Dept of Agriculture supports cotton research at a handful of universities, including Texas Tech. I learned about the former at the “Eco” seminar at MAGIC (reviewed here) and the latter in Pietra Rivoli’s Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy

  5. Malissa says:

    The cotton could be going to Hobbs Bonded Fiber which is located North of Austin. I’ve heard quite a few reports lately that farmers are switching to corn because its the new cash cow with so much of it being used for ethanol, livestock feed, and as a replacment for styrofoam in disposable products.

  6. Jasmin says:

    I remember being in Uzbekistan, which is a massive cotton producer (all students have to help harvest the cotton in season, no exceptions) however bizarrely, buying a cotton garment is well-nigh impossible! It all gets shipped out for processing, which is sad, especially given hand harvesting probably gives an advantage in the output from the sounds of the comments.
    I have one Uzbek cotton shirt, everything else I could find was synthetic velour from China. Hopefully we don’t end up unable to buy cotton because bio-fuel is a priority. Getting to grips with less oil would probably be a better solution.

  7. john says:

    my family farms cotton. if you have any questions i can answer them or get the answer. they usually plant several thousand acres but due to the price of soybeans and corn being so high, most people are not planting cotton this year.

  8. Kathleen, thanks for posting this. As you know I grew up in Las Cruces, and I just (last night) returned from NM visiting my mother’s family (Las Vegas). I had so much great chile!

    So sorry your trip was canceled. Fortunately, I was on USAir. Just catching up here, but planning enchiladas for dinner with the chile I brought back.


  9. Dani says:

    Eric, your comment about subsidized farmers implies that we are on some type of undeserved “welfare”. The U.S. farmer is in direct competition with lower-cost growers in developing nations, in part because of the U.S. textile industry. Our production costs, including the increased minimum wage and soaring fuel costs have increased exponentially over the last few decades, but the average price per pound the cotton farmer receives has not. The subsidies are meant to protect the U.S. farmer from foreign competition, and unfortunately, those huge corporate farms (many foreign owned!) know how to do some creative bookkeeping in order to get the most benefit, leaving the small family farm barely able to break even on a good year. There’s a whole lot more underneath the surface of this issue, so please don’t judge us too harshly. I am a 3rd generation farm girl, so I get a little defensive when folks out there think we are getting rich off the American taxpayer. We are barely scraping by, but we love the farm…it’s in our blood. Nobody can understand another’s hardships until they’ve walked many miles in their shoes.

  10. Eric H says:

    Dani, what I said above is incontrovertibly true: US cotton is subsidized. The last time I checked, I think the world price was around $0.52/lb and the subsidies were in the $0.19/lb range. Subsidies generally bring more suppliers into the market, causing glut and further depressing prices. It’s a vicious cycle, so people dependent on the subsidies will observe that they are barely getting by despite them. In the case of cotton, this special pleading goes back literally to the founding of the Republic.

    There’s no point in arguing about whether the farmers deserve it or not; I’ve met some admirable farmers and some not so admirable, but they all get the same prices. It isn’t about the merit of the family farm; that sentimental old canard has been worn out as much by ADM as by anyone. It’s about resources. A single African farmer and his family simply cannot harvest the same acreage that a US farmer in an air-conditioned, remote sensing and GPS satellite-guided, petroleum-powered, Bt-seed-dropping, Cotton Inc and USDA research-backed, Round-Up spraying behemoth can do by himself. The fact that *they* are the low-cost providers of this product despite our advantages is a clear signal that *we* should get out of this particular market.

    It seems to me that if people are barely scraping by, they might want to check their alternatives. If I may, organic* cotton brings a premium on the market, on the order of 30%.

    * Yes, it’s all organic, ain’t it? But I think we all know what I mean.

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