03 Jan Career Spotlight: Cotton Ginner
Many Americans are familiar with Eli Whitney, and although his work had varied implications on mechanical efficiencies around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it is the cotton gin for which he is famous. In 1793, Whitney filed a patent on a mechanized cotton gin using a series of rollers, teeth, and brushes. Streamlining the process by alleviating bottlenecks in the labor-intensive process of separating cotton into its usable parts opened the door to increased acreage of upland cotton in the United States. Thus, King Cotton became firmly ensconced in the American story and forever shaped its socio-economic fabric.
Modern Cotton Ginning
Today, modern facilities across the American South and West gin tens of thousands of pounds of cotton per hour, a giant leap from the capacity of Whitney’s machine, and the men and women who process and market the fabric and byproducts from American cotton farms remain an integral component to the agricultural economy.
When it is harvested, cotton is packed into large blocks known as modules. When a farmer is ready for his modules to be picked up he calls the gin, which dispatches specialized trucks to transport them. The modules are then broken up in the yard, and the process of ginning the cotton begins.
Cotton is dried; run through a series of cleaners to remove large debris, burrs, and foreign matter; and conveyed pneumatically through pipes and fans to further cleaning equipment. After this, the cotton enters the gin stand, the modern equivalent of Whitney’s invention, where the fiber is separated from the seed. Once ginned, the lint is cleaned again, infused with humid air to achieve optimal moisture, and pressed into bales weighing approximately 480 pounds. The bales are strapped, bagged, and shipped to warehouses to be sold across the globe.
Everything that moves through a gin is marketed, not just the final pressed cotton. Oil can be extracted from the seed for cooking or feed fat purposes. In addition, whole cottonseed, cottonseed meal, cottonseed hulls, and even burrs are often merchandised as feed ingredients.
The ginning process commences with the completion of the year’s first module and continues until each scrap of cotton has been run through the facility, often requiring multiple, around-the-clock shifts. In the offseason, gin managers work diligently to repair and maintain equipment, market cotton and byproducts, and prepare for the next crop.
It takes a strong work ethic, a variety of skills, and enormous patience to manage a cotton gin, but the opportunities abound for young professionals eager to make their mark on the industry. Tony Williams, Executive Vice President of the Texas Cotton Ginners’ Association (TCGA), has high hopes for the ginning industry despite multiple challenges. Texas is the country’s largest cotton producer, and out of 216 total gins operating in the state, 214 are members of TCGA.
The Ginning Industry
According to Williams, the most significant potential pitfalls facing the ginning industry are onerous government regulations, uncertainty brought on by drought, and shifting paradigms in how farm legislation is written. “…The cotton industry was basically taken out of Title 1 of the  farm bill, and it’s been treated completely different than all the other major agriculture crops…so that’s been a big hurdle for us,” Williams says. Gin closings and the ensuing consolidation brought on by changes in transportation logistics have also altered the way gins do business. Williams says, “At one time in Texas we had 4,600 gins; today we have 216.” The invention of the module builder and module trucks, and more recently the advent of round module pickers, have eliminated the need for gins to be so densely spaced.
What Makes a Good Cotton Manager?
With so many changes in the last several decades, what makes a good gin manager? Williams says it takes two things: mechanical skills and a strong business acumen. Gin managers must be intimately familiar with how the complex equipment in a gin works, but they also have to manage employees, market the cotton and its byproducts (seed, burrs, and motes), maintain proper safety procedures, and be stalwart recordkeepers. Ginning is seasonal, just like farming, and when it’s crunch time an effective manager knows how to keep things running smoothly and profitably, working around weather events and fluctuations in the market.
When asked about opportunities for recent graduates interested in a career in ginning, Williams points to TCGA’s internship program, an opportunity for college students to work hands-on with active gin managers and learn the business from the floor up.
Steven Craig is an assistant gin manager at United Agricultural Cooperative in El Campo, Texas, in addition to serving as it’s grain elevator manager. Craig participated in the TCGA internship program in the summer of 2009 while a student at Texas A&M University, and he says it was this experience that launched his career. “I had no clue at that point, and the internship gave us hands-on [experience] with the offseason as well as the full harvest period…it just drew me in,” says Craig. He kept in contact with TCGA staff and his professors at A&M and landed the job after graduation.
The Future of Ginning
Craig agrees that consolidation is an important factor shaping the future of the industry, and with that he considers recruiting talented managers into the business as the biggest hurdle to overcome. This, he says, also presents a fantastic opportunity for graduates seeking a career in agriculture: “In the short term there are a lot of opportunities for some younger guys to get in there and really fall into some managerial rolls and be at the forefront of some big changes in the industry.”
As far as actually taking steps to begin a ginning career, Craig recommends internships and shadowing gin managers. He says it is important to be patient and put in the time, learning how everything operates on the most basic level and working into a managerial position. “If you ever want to manage a gin, you’ve got to be able to do everything in the gin,” he says. Additionally, the National Cotton Ginners’ Association offers three gin schools each year at various locations throughout the country.
Like so many young professionals working in agriculture, Craig remains optimistic about the state of the industry. He is excited about the technological advancements being made in ginning equipment and processes, and he touts the benefits of working in rural areas. From hand-separating lint from seed, cotton ginning has progressed into the 21st century and emerged as a viable career option for anyone interested in producing quality fabric for a growing global population.