Traditional Crops of the Old South – Florida Cotton

There was nothing for the traveler to do but to surrender the package of seed. But that night he hunted up the planter from whom he had bought it and, with the aid of a few golden guilders, persuaded him that it would not be necessary for him to make a report to the authorities of a second sale of tobacco seed. He sailed the next day with a supply of unboiled Sumatra tobacco seed safely packed away in his travelling trunk. He brought it back to the home of its ancestors, and revived the cigar-tobacco industry in West Florida.

From then on, in the early 1870’s, the practice of growing tobacco under shade was developed. Tobacco so cultivated, from the old Florida seed re imported from Sumatra, proved to have all the qualities needed for cigar wrappers, and a wide market was developed, especially among domestic cigar manufacturers in the North. Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Connecticut could grow tobacco, but only Florida could furnish the quality of leaf needed for the best grade of cigar wrappers. A great industry has sprung from that smuggled tobacco seed from the Dutch East Indies, the memory of which is perpetuated in the name of the American Sumatra Tobacco Company, from whose warehouses in Quincy the shade tobacco is shipped to all the world, some of it to the Netherlands, completing a romantic cycle which began before the Civil War.

Eastward from Quincy the Old Spanish Trail takes us through Tallahassee again into a region of rich agricultural country in which the farming traditions and habits of the Old South are still pursued, but with modern scientific methods, and some interesting specialized developments. Monticello, the appropriately named county seat of Jefferson County, is known to watermelon growers all over the world as the largest source of watermelon seed. Scores of farmers in this vicinity grow watermelons for seed purposes alone. The seeds are dried, graded, separated by varieties and packed and shipped by a single concern in Monticello. A little farther east, Madison, in the county of the same name, is the focus of the revived Sea Island cotton industry. Both Monticello and Madison are typical old Southern towns, among the earliest of the permanent English settlements in Florida, and rather proud of their antiquity and of the distinguished names in Florida history which have sprung from them.

In 1937 the South produced the largest crop of cotton in many years and the price slumped from around $75 a bale to $45 a bale and under. Cotton is clearly a hazardous crop. But in that same year, 1937, Florida farmers sold 5,000 bales of cotton for $625,000 and more, above $125 a bale, higher than twenty-five cents a pound. The answer to that apparent paradox is that they grow a different kind of cotton.

When one says “cotton” he ordinarily means upland or short staple cotton. That is the common kind of cotton universally used, universally grown, cheap to produce and sold in a highly competitive market. In 1937 Madison County led the grand march of the triumphant re-entry of Sea Island cotton into the world’s markets.

Florida’s revival of the Sea Island cotton industry, ruined in 1917 by the pink boll-weevil on its eastward march, is one of the dramatic victories in the never-ending conflict between man and the insect world. It was won by the discovery that the boll-weevil actually has no particular taste for cotton, but climbs the cotton stalk because he is thirsty!

That discovery, made by George D. Smith, entomologist in charge of the W. P. A. Sea Island cotton project in Madison county, resulted in the development of a cheap and effi cient method of poisoning the weevil before he reaches the cotton boll. Two years of experimental work demonstrated the practicability of this new method of boll-weevil control so conclusively that farmers in this and adjoining Florida counties planted 20,000 acres to Sea Island cotton in 1937. An exceptionally wet Summer somewhat impaired the quality of the crop, so that little of it brought the top price of the 1936 experimental crop of 819 bales, some of which sold for above 35 cents a pound. The heavy rains also reduced the yield to an average of a quarter of a bale to the acre, which was the pre-boll-weevil average in the Sea Island cotton belt. In 1936 one of the experimental farms produced thirteen 500-pound bales on twelve acres. But there is a profit in a yield of 125 pounds to the acre, at 25 cents a pound, and the success under favorable conditions of this, the world’s first commercial crop of Sea Island cotton in more than a decade, was so convincing that the farmers of North Florida and southern Georgia prepared to plant more than 100,000 acres to this crop in 1938.

Sea Island cotton growers have no fear of a price-wrecking surplus production. The world markets have never been able to obtain all they can absorb of this long-staple, fine, silky fiber. Grown only in a narrow belt stretching southwesterly from the sea islands of the Carolina-Georgia coast across Georgia into North Florida, Sea Island cotton requires a balanced degree of atmospheric humidity, neither too little nor too great, which is not found anywhere else in the world. Its only competitors in the world markets are the Egyptian Sakel cotton and the Arizona Pima cotton, neither of which commands the price of No. 1 Sea Island, which in 1936 touched 22 pence a pound on the Liverpool Cotton Exchange.

The pre-war market for Sea Island cotton consisted chiefly of spinners of lisle thread (L’isle-“thread of the island”). Before the days of cheap Japanese silk and of synthetic cellu lose fabrics, lisle thread went into the stockings and underwear of those who could not afford high-priced silk but wanted something finer than the coarser fabrics made of the shorter staple upland cotton. Today’s insatiable and growing market is the makers of automobile tires. No other fiber, natural or artificial, has been found which so well meets the requirements of strength, flexibility and durability imposed by modern high-speed, low-pressure tires as do the long-staple cottons. Most of the Arizona Pima cotton plantations are owned, or their product controlled, by tire manufacturers.

The idea of trying to grow Sea Island cotton again in Florida originated with a Gilchrist County farmer, W. F. Love, in 1933. He tried to get some Sea Island cotton seed, but there was none to be had in Florida. None of the gins which had formerly handled Sea Island had any seed left over. It is easy to distinguish Sea Island cotton seed, as the fibers come off clean in ginning, instead of leaving a linty fuzz adhering to the seed, as upland cotton does.

Mr. Love appealed to the State Commissioner of Agriculture, Nathan Mayo, to help him find some seed. Mr. Mayo, in turn, asked the Federal Department of Agriculture. Washington sent a man to Florida to find out how serious Mr. Love was. Satisfied that there was a possible chance, the Department scoured the old Sea Island cotton belt for seed and accumulated the entire available supply, 62 bushels. They sent 50 bushels to Mr. Love and 12 bushels to the State Agricultural Experiment Station at Gainesville,

Enough of the seed was planted in 1934 to prove two things. First, that the boll-weevil was just as fond of Sea Island cotton as ever, and second, that any planter who could produce a bale of No. 1 Sea Island cotton could sell it for two or three times the price of upland cotton. Fifteen bales were produced that year, four more than in the whole state of Florida in 1924, the last year of the losing battle with the bollweevil, when the planters had thrown up their hands and quit trying.

That measure of success was not very impressive, but the entomologists and agronomists supervising the experiment noted that the boll-weevil did less damage where the cotton plants had been directly treated with calcium arsenate than in the fields where the poison had been spread by broadcast dusting from airplanes, or by spraying. And one of the entomologists, George D. Smith, noted that the weevil did most of his damage on hot, dry afternoons. That suggested the possibility that the weevil, who lives underground when not feeding in the cotton boll, might be more thirsty than malicious. The boll, it was determined, holds moisture even on the dryest day.

How to apply a poison solution where the weevil would encounter it and stop to slake his thirst before he got to the boll was a problem which was solved, after many experiments. Cane syrup is plenty and cheap in North Florida. It is a staple product of almost every farm. By mixing the arsenical poison with syrup and applying it to the stalks and leaves of the cotton plants, the upward climb of the weevil to the bolls was effectively stopped. They paused to drink the poison syrup and died in their tracks.

To demonstrate the commercial value of this new method of boll-weevil control called for a large-scale operation. The farmers of Madison County, the State and Federal Depart ments of Agriculture and the Experiment Station of the Florida State College of Agriculture set up a Sea Island cotton program as a county W. P. A. project for 1935. Thirty farmers cooperated, with plantings of from one to ten acres, and Mr. Smith, the entomologist, was placed in charge. A simple method of applying the poisoned syrup was developed and proved economical. A field hand walks down each row of cotton, with a pail of poison in one hand and a crude mop, made of rags tied to a stick, in the other. He pushes the poison-soaked mop ahead of him, smearing each plant with the sticky mixture, which remains potent for a week unless a heavy rain comes within three hours after its application. Five or six applications are enough between seeding time, at the end of March, and the middle of June, when the boll sheaths have hardened so that the weevil cannot bore through them.

By the first of July, 1935, no trace of weevil infestation could be found on any of the 30 farms. One hundred and sixty bales of Sea Island cotton were harvested and sold on the open market at 25 cents a pound. The following year, 1936, there was no trouble in getting 70 farmers to cooperate. The result was a crop of 819 bales of No. 1 Sea Island cotton, none of which brought less than 32 cents a pound. The yield was better than half a bale to the acre; one 12-acre field grew 13 bales,

With more than half a million dollars jingling in their pockets from the sale of one year’s crop of 2 1/2 million pounds of Sea Island cotton at 25 cents a pound, less ginning and brokerage fees, the farmers of North Florida have stopped worrying about Federal quotas and cotton loans. They’ve got the boll-weevil licked.