If they farmed in a math textbook word problem, they’d be done in eight days. In real life, “that would never, never happen,” Shelley Barlow said wryly. Instead, they shoot for being done by Thanksgiving.
Barlow, who serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Cotton Advisory Committee, explained that cotton must be completely dry before it can be harvested. “Just a hint of a light rain” or a heavy dew, “and we have to stop everything.”
Additionally, equipment used to harvest cotton is complex and high-maintenance. The Barlows co-own theirs with another farm. “Between them and us, the cotton picker has to go over 1,000 acres” and be moved from one property to another, Barlow said.
Each cotton harvest day starts with maintenance work on the cotton picker, which needs fuel, grease and a thorough cleaning, and actual harvesting begins in the afternoon, when the cotton is thoroughly dry. That work can continue “until it gets damp again. And if it’s 11 at night, that’s when we stop,” Barlow said. The picker is cleaned at least once more during a day’s work.
Interviewed by phone on a morning when she, her husband and their son were working on the cotton picker, Barlow described it this way: “It’s dirty, it’s greasy and there’s a million ways to cut yourself.” Their picker will strip six rows of cotton at a time, each row feeding into units that grab the cotton bolls from the plants by means of many small spindles.
The Barlows began harvesting cotton the second full week of October, having already harvested their corn crop, and they finished on Nov. 22. On days that the co-owners of the cotton equipment are using it, “if we have soybeans ready, we try to do them,” Barlow said. Her family also used to grow peanuts, which are harvested at the same time as cotton.
Essentially, harvesting field crops “cancels out any other activities” for several weeks each fall, Barlow said. “This is the only time we get paid every year, so we all know how important it is, and it’s the first priority. We use the term ‘relentless.’ It’s not that we want to hurry up and get it over with; it’s that if we get good conditions, we need to get it all.”
The longer a mature crop stays in the field, she explained, the greater potential for its quality to decline. And when the work is completed, “that’s a great day, just a feeling of accomplishment.”
The most recent Census of Agriculture found cotton grown on 267 Virginia farms, on a cumulative 89,000 acres. Cotton lint is the state’s 12th-ranked farm commodity in terms of revenue, and cottonseed is ranked 18th.