Gambling On King Cotton


Four Seasons in

the Mississippi Delta

By Gerard Helferich

Counterpoint; 308pp; $25

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An insightful look at the day-to-day rigors of cotton farming.

The Bad Brief sections on such topics as slavery and the civil rights movement are far from profound.

The Bottom Line An intriguing look at the modern methods and considerable perils of an old and venerated occupation.

They used to call it King Cotton. Now, the crop is a welfare case: Each year the government doles out $4 billion to 25,000 U.S. cotton farmers, including payments if the market price falls below certain benchmarks or if foul weather inflicts dramatic losses. Despite such backing, many planters often just break even. During a bad year, or even a good year, the temptations to quit are numerous. In the words of Mississippi farmer Zack Killebrew, facing a potentially ruined crop: "I'm ready to piss on the fire and call in the dogs...There ain't no profit out there."

Killebrew's experience during the tumultuous year of 2005 is the subject of High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta by Gerard Helferich. In the mode of John McPhee's recent Uncommon Carriers, which focused on such trades as long-haul trucking and ocean shipping, High Cotton is a microcosmic look at work. Along the way, Helferich provides compact sections on the Industrial Revolution and textile manufacturing, slavery, sharecropping, the great flood of 1927, and the civil rights movement. Readers familiar with these topics won't learn much that's new here—the author has drawn heavily from a limited number of secondary sources. But the main narrative, focusing on Killebrew's farming, is a perceptive and unaffected look at an occupation that, however changed, is almost as ancient and venerated as human civilization.

Killebrew farms 1,700 acres of the floodplain known as the Mississippi Delta, with 1,000 acres in cotton and the rest in soybeans and corn. This is, Helferich says, the most fertile soil in the American South (with the very best known locally as "ice cream land" for its velvety texture) and some of the richest land on earth. But it is fitting that this region has in recent years sprouted a bevy of gambling casinos: Cotton-growing is among the riskiest ventures around.

Every cotton crop today depends on a heavy application of chemicals. In Mississippi, the warm, humid climate is a paradise for botanical pests, from teaweed to Johnson grass. And more than 15 species of insects, from thrips to stinkbugs, can't wait to feast on cotton plants. The very cotton seeds that Killebrew uses have been genetically modified to resist certain bugs and herbicides. They also come coated in blue chemical jackets composed of a blend of fungicides and insecticides. Nevertheless, during growing season, repeated applications of insect- and weed-killer are required.

Then there is the matter of erratic, often calamitous weather, which in the year chronicled by Helferich included both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Those storms hit Killebrew's crops late in the growing season, delivering severe punishment. But a much milder spring storm that dumped five inches of rain also had a dire effect, binding soil particles into a crust that seedlings could not penetrate. Killebrew was forced to replant nearly half of his crop.

Helferich richly details the array of machines used to plant, weed, dose, defoliate, and finally pick a cotton crop. Killebrew has two modern tractors, each equipped with air-conditioning, power steering, and computers that track the machine's functioning. In the fall, he uses a giant mechanical picker to harvest the crop. It's still a matter of debate whether such mechanization prompted or followed from the 20th century's great black migration out of the South, which saw 5 million African Americans abandoning the region for Northern cities. In any case, "thanks to chemicals and machines, Zack can work his farm with two full-time employees and two part-timers, instead of the dozens of hands it would have taken a hundred years ago," reports the author.

At the end of four seven-day weeks of harvesting, Killebrew's cotton is in. Still, the author points out, the result remains uncertain, and Killebrew won't know just how well he has done until the fiber has been ginned—or separated from its hulls and seed—and weighed. Although Katrina's damage proved largely superficial, Rita had a worse effect, arresting boll development. In the end, Killebrew netted 880 pounds of cotton per acre, far below the 1,300 pounds of the previous season but not a disaster. "All told, Zack should get about $600,000 for the cotton, which is less than he spent to grow it," reports the author. "With his government subsidy, he figures he'll just about break even." All the same, speaking of the future facing his two cotton farmer sons, Killebrew insists: "They're not gettin' out till they go broke—just like me." He sounds, the author notes, "like a sinner too far gone to be redeemed." Or perhaps like a high-roller who refuses to quit the craps table even though his stake is withering fast.

By Hardy Green

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