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Crop quickly made an impact on city's economy

BY Doug Hensley
For the Avalanche-Journal

The official coronation didn't happen until the 1920s, but from Lubbock's earliest days, it was only a matter of time before King Cotton found its place on the agricultural throne.

"The main reason cotton came to the Plains was a lot of cotton farmers were escaping from Central Texas because of boll weevils," said Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. "They believed at the time, when they came here in the early 1900s, that the boll weevil could not exist in this climate.

"In addition to that, we had a great climate and good land that cotton was well adapted to. That factor, along with the area being relatively insect-free, was the main reason."

Randy Boman, an extension cotton agronomist with the TexasAgriLife Extension Service, agreed the climate of the South Plains was a good match for cotton.

"One of the things about the climate on the Plains is our rainfall distribution - looking at longtime rainfall average distribution, it fits the crop very well," he said. "Not only does the rainfall distribution tend to match a dryland crop, but it can also complement very well our limited irrigation capacity in most irrigated fields in the region."

According to "A Century of Cotton Production in the High Plains of Texas" by Roger Haldenby, Lubbock's first cotton crop was planted on 10 acres of grassland by W.P. Florence in May, 1901. Florence and his cousin had moved to Lubbock from Stonewall County, and their crop produced a harvest of two bales, which were sold for 9 cents a pound.

From that modest beginning grew, literally, what has come to be known as the world's largest cotton patch. By 1928, 1.6 million acres were planted to cotton across the 18 counties surrounding Lubbock, according to the article by Haldenby, the vice president of operations for Plains Cotton Growers.

In the book "Lubbock: From Town to City," cotton's rise is detailed from 1904, when Lubbock's first gin appeared. According to that work, Crosby, Dawson, Floyd, Lubbock and Lynn counties produced 14,839 bales in 1915, and the number increased to 809,705 by 1949.

"Cotton became the 'money' crop on the South Plains," the authors wrote.

Verett said several factors combined to make the Lubbock area the center of a growing agribusiness complex.

"The unique thing about the cotton industry," he said, "growing the crop isn't just a matter of loading it on a truck and shipping it off. It takes processing, ginning, warehousing and cottonseed processing. There are several other processes that have to be done. Because of that, it provides a lot of infrastructure and economic activity that you don't have with other crops.

"That's what has made cotton an economic engine, all the ancillary business the crop requires. It's not just the growing, but the processing it takes to get it to market. This is a business that really touches a lot of different people."

That expanded touch took time to locate, though. The Dust Bowl reduced cotton yields to about 45 pounds per acre by 1934, according to the article by Haldenby, and just more than a half-million acres were planted in the final year of World War II, marking an all-time low in the years since 1928. Cotton producers also had to overcome the economic challenges of the Great Depression.

Verett said innovation and vision helped the industry survive - and thrive.

"Mechanization certainly changed the face of agriculture on the High Plains," he said. "A cotton harvest used to take a lot of people, and labor helped build this industry in the 1930s. Up until probably after World War II, most of the cotton was hand harvested, so mechanization of cotton was a major change and one of the real steps that propelled it to become even bigger."

According to "Lubbock: From Town to City," mechanization spurred the region to rely almost solely on cotton. Single producers now had the ability to cultivate 450 acres or more, and good prices after the war increased the crop's allure.

Another major change was the introduction of widespread irrigation to the region, Verett said.

"In the 1940s, irrigation changed agriculture," he said. "There was some irrigation in the early 1940s, but what brought it into more widespread use was having the necessary power to run a pump. After World War II, significant strides were made in irrigating pumps. Farmers no longer had to rely so much on the vagaries of Mother Nature."

According to Haldenby's research, "With bigger and better electric motors and other engines, pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer deep beneath the area's cotton fields became feasible. By 1952, almost 4 million acres were in cotton production with the ratio of irrigated to dryland on the climb. By the late 1950s, the average yield per acre was running between 400 and 500 pounds.

Cotton was indeed king. In 1947, according to "Lubbock: From Town to City," the South Plains marketed 900,000 bales of lint cotton, almost 30 percent of the state's total, and by 1977, more than 60 percent of the state's cotton crop originated in the 56 counties of the Texas High Plains with most of the production in the counties surrounding Lubbock.

"There were visionaries involved in the industry beyond just the growing of the cotton," Verett said. "It's a chicken-and-egg deal. It takes further processing once you grow cotton. You have to have a ginning industry. You have to make it a usable product. That's how we came to have cottonseed oil mills in this country."

Boman said cotton innovation will continue to play a key role in the long-term success of the crop on the South Plains.

"What we are seeing here as far as technological advances are more transgenic traits - genetically engineered cotton," he said. "We saw the first of these in the marketplace in 1996 with a Bt product called Bollgard that conferred insect resistance for certain worm pests."

Boman said the Monsanto company introduced a herbicide-tolerant variety of cotton into the marketplace the next year. Companies have continued to improve on the technology, stacking herbicide- and pest-resistance traits to create superior cotton yields.

"Those are short-term as far as trait aspects," he said. "In the longer term, one thing we are hearing about from various companies is water use efficiency - a trait that would possibly provide more yield on less water."

It is those kinds of breakthroughs that have helped cotton maintain its spot as a major economic driver in the region.

"I think a lot of people do understand how important cotton is here," Verett said. "I'm sure some don't, and I don't say that in a critical way because I think there are people who don't understand the imprint of the medical community. They take that for granted, and it's easy to take anything for granted that's been around for a while.

"We think, 'It's agriculture. It will always be here and always provide.' People might not understand sometimes how it plays a role in life. Agriculture has a tremendous ripple effect throughout the whole community. It's very important."

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SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION