published Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

For small town of Elora, Tenn., cotton business still 'gets in your blood'

 A cotton field in Cowan, Tenn., is ready for harvest along U.S. Highway 41A in Franklin County.
A cotton field in Cowan, Tenn., is ready for harvest along U.S. Highway 41A in Franklin County.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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TO LEARN MORE

Go here on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website to see a diagram of a modern cotton gin operation and more information about how gins in the industry work.

  • photo
    Jimmy Brannon squats to get a handful of cotton seed at his modern-day cotton gin, just west of Winchester, Tenn., in Lincoln County. In season, 35 employees run the cotton plant processor 24-hours-a-day for three months.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Iazaro Valdez bags a sample for classification at the Elora Gin Warehouse, LLC Thursday. The samples are shipped each day to Memphis and are used to set pricing.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Artemio Valdez, day shift press operator, guides a cotton bail onto the cart before bagging at the Elora Gin Thursday.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Jimmy Brannon reaches for a sample of cotton as it is being processed at the Elora Gin Thursday. "We'll run an average of 650 bails of cotton in a 24 hour period, " Brannon said.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Jimmy Brannon holds a handful of cotton seed retrieved from the gin stand, at right, a byproduct of the ginning process.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

ELORA, Tenn. -- On a drive from the top of Monteagle Mountain west across the southern Cumberland Plateau, many roads are lined with white cotton bolls ready for harvest or skeletal plants surrounding 10-foot-tall stacks of the fluffy, freshly picked product.

Those who travel mostly north and south on highways in the South might think cotton country lies toward the coasts or points west near the Mississippi River. But just over the Lincoln County line in Elora, Tenn., is Elora Gin Warehouse, the eastern-most cotton gin in Tennessee.

Jimmy and Kristie Brannon's family members run the operation, where a double handful of metal buildings are surrounded by thousands of acres of cotton.

Jimmy Brannon, 60, said he started working some at the gin as a teen in the 1960s when Kristie's father, David R. Owens, ran it at a site closer into town in Elora. It was moved in 1972 to its current spot on Limestone Road.

"I worked with him for 36 years till he passed away," Jimmy Brannon said, noting with a smile that he was Owens' "right hand" before becoming his son-in-law when he and Kristie Owens tied the knot in 1981.

The Elora Gin can clean a 480-pound cotton bale in less than two minutes, and it generates about 650 bales in 24 hours, Jimmy Brannon said.

In a good September to December season like 2011, the gin can process as many as 40,000 to 42,000 bales, he said.

The Brannons bought the operation in 2007 from Owens' estate, said Kristie Brannon. Now 52, she worked at the gin since her father built its first cotton warehouse in 1984, she said. In the 1980s, much of the work still was done by hand, she said.

A few parts of the modern process are unchanged from the days when Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin changed the industrial and cultural landscape of the South in 1793. Today's operations, however, are much more streamlined and technological, the Brannons said.

It's mid-season now, and the gin's specialized cotton-hauling trucks stream in from regional fields, loaded with "modules" of cotton. A module is a truck-sized block of picked cotton that machines in the fields pack together for transport to the gin.

In Elora, trucks deliver cotton modules to outdoor storage areas to wait their turn in the processing line, according to Kristie Brannon. The raw cotton is blown through large pipes to a dryer, then through equipment that removes sticks and stems before it heads to the company's three Lummus-brand gin stands.

In the gin, the seeds are blown into smaller pipes that lead to nearby seed warehouse buildings. Meanwhile, the cotton lint is blown into a collector, then dumped into a press and baling machine that ejects plastic-wrapped bales ready for storage in the warehouses, she said. Samples are taken from each customer's cotton to send to Memphis for classification used in pricing.

The ginning process separates the fluffy fibers from the patented Monsanto seed, which is sold as a cattle feed additive for dairy cows and for use by companies that crush it to retrieve valuable cottonseed oil, according to Kristie Brannon.

A common misunderstanding is that the seed removed from cotton is replanted to grow next year's crop, said Erin Reed, 33, one of the gin's owners. But the seed itself is highly guarded technology, she said.

"It's patented. It's like a $500,000 fine" to plant patent owner Monsanto's cotton seed, she said. Each season, they must buy new seed for planting from Monsanto, which is the lone source for the high-tech seed, she said.

During the season, Elora Gin's employees work almost constantly. All the gin's employees work seven 12-hour days per week from September to December, according to Kristie Brannon.

There's no lunch break, but lunch is delivered to each employees' work station so they can keep ginning cotton while they eat.

Reed said the company makes its money not from ginning, but from the cottonseed byproduct of the process. Most cotton ginned in Elora is exported to China, Mexico and Turkey, she said.

"We just gin it and store it. We gin for the seed," she said. "The cotton is generally sold when we gin it."

Processing the raw material that ends up as a 480-pound bale of cotton usually generates about 620 pounds of seed, she said.

"If the seed price is above what the ginning costs, the customers get a rebate," she said. "If the ginning costs more than what the seed costs, we eat the loss."

Watching the gin spill fluffy cotton lint and seed into the collection systems, Jimmy Brannon said the cotton business "gets in your blood" and the work is usually satisfying.

"There are times when you just want to throw your hands up," he said. "That goes with it. But it's enjoyable. It really is."

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about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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minddoc said...

""It's patented. It's like a $500,000 fine" to plant patent owner Monsanto's cotton seed, she said. Each season, they must buy new seed for planting from Monsanto, which is the lone source for the high-tech seed, she said."

Did that sentence make anyone raise an eyebrow? Using your own seeds to replant next year's crop has been the way this country's farms supplied food for themselves and the rest of the country for hundreds of years. Monsanto has changed all of that. If you do your research, you will find Monsanto owns the vast majority of ALL seeds in this country. And, they are "modifying" the genetic structure of most seeds (to presumably make them produce better, bigger crops but we have no idea what can go wrong in the long-term when we mess with Mother Nature) and changing the genes allows them to patent something like a cotton seed. It also allows them to require that you continue to spend huge amounts to keep buying seeds so they get richer. It will get to the point where there is a scarcity of "non-hybrid, non-GMO" seeds that anyone can use to grow their own food, collect the seeds from their crop to use next year, and therefore be self-sustainable. This is a huge problem as it could result in the entire population being required to buy from Monsanto to simply plant a garden-and facing huge fines if they dare to use a seed from a plant they have grown. Monsanto has all but eliminated farms of any real size by buying land right next door and then suing the farm after a few years because some of their patented seeds have been carried by the wind and mixed in with the farmer's crop. Monsanto sues and wins, time after time. Sometimes they reach a deal where the farmer agrees to pay a hefty fine and only use Monsanto seeds thereafter - paying exorbitant prices for seeds year after year because they cannot use seeds from their crops. I highly recommend stocking up on non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds - not only are you buying insurance that you will have your own food, but you could make a lot of money selling your seeds to others. Until Monsanto shuts you down, of course. Just "Google" the company and you'll learn a great deal about the dangers of Monsanto. The Institute for Responsible Technology (http://responsibletechnology.org/) explains the danger of genetically modified seeds (to our health as well as our economy) and GMWatch (http://gmwatch.org/) is another good source. Find a good source for non-GMO, non-hybrid seeds and stock up on every seed you can - it is a wise investment.

November 8, 2011 at 10:10 a.m.
HookiePookie said...

Minddoc....there is so much more to this than you know. It's all about the MONEY!

January 7, 2012 at 1:05 p.m.
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