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Picking cotton after school

The cotton harvest was integral to the survival of a farm family when I was a boy 70 years ago. 

Our 50-acre farm was allowed to plant up to 10 acres in cotton without a penalty. Since it was our main cash crop, we planted every row we could and exercised best management practices to ensure maximum production. 

In a good year, the crop yielded 10-12 bales and was sold for approximately $3,000.

The cash provided shoes, clothing and other necessities for a family of nine, in addition to fertilizer and seed for the next year’s crop. The seed were kept and used to help feed two milk cows during the winter months.

The quality of the cotton was subject to weather conditions and the attention the pickers gave to their work. Ideally, the harvest was conducted in the absence of rain and wind. Workers picked only fully open boles, avoided trash and left no unpicked locks behind. The cleanest products fetched the highest prices.

Fortunately, our family could have five to seven workers in the field at the same time.  Each picker used a shoulder sack that could hold up to 40 pounds. Collectively, our family could pick a bale in a day. 

Schools supported the harvest by closing their doors for two weeks in September. During this time, cotton was the ripest for harvest, and weather conditions were mostly hot and dry.

Unfortunately, the harvest was far from being over for those of us who had cotton to be picked after the school day ended.

Our marching orders were to change into work clothes, grab a snack and report to the cotton field with our pick sacks, all within 15 minutes after the school bus dropped us off.

Regardless of homework, we picked cotton until sundown and still had our daily chores waiting for us when we reached the house.

We finished the cotton harvest earlier than most of our neighbors, and my brothers and me hired out as cotton pickers. We were paid two cents for each pound we picked. Working in thick cotton, a fast picker could pick 200 pounds.

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