Wagons loaded with pumpkins and gourds immediately attract Laudies Brantley’s three granddaughters. The girls, ranging in age from six to ten, are drawn to the pumpkin/gourd/squash mixes, grown and harvested specifically for fall display and, of course, Halloween.
Many of them have giant warts—the pumpkins, not the granddaughters—to enhance their appeal as potential jack-o-lanterns. Walter Ellis of “The Pumpkin People”—officially Arkansas Crop Technologies—said the pumpkins and gourds are infected with a virus that produces the “warts.” Ugly, in this case, is beautiful.
Brantley rents seventy acres of his farm in Lonoke County, Arkansas, to the pumpkin folks, who grow “hundreds of thousands” of pumpkins each season to sell to local garden centers and pumpkin patches. The secret’s out (sorry, Linus): most pumpkin patches don’t grow their own.
And while those seventy acres are producing pumpkins, destined for front porch steps and rustic autumnal pageantry, Brantley’s workers are harvesting cotton. King cotton: not the economic powerhouse it once was but still a big deal in the South. This season, Brantley farmed about 2,400 acres of it.
His other crops are in the house—2,400 acres of corn, 2,000 acres of soybeans, and 3,800 acres of rice. (The Arkansas Delta is ground central for U.S. rice production, producing about half of the nation’s output—1.5 million of 3 million acres.)
Cotton, meanwhile, is the last to be planted and the last to come out of the ground. And October is harvest month.
Brantley Farming Co. workers have put the finishing touches on the 2016 season as the fair circuit, football, and slightly cooling temperatures evoke Ray Bradbury and provide tangible proof of season’s end.
The local England High Lions are undefeated and on their way to another conference title, and Brantley’s cotton, once harvested from the field and baled by one of his two mechanical cotton pickers, is on its way to the gin in McGehee on board Brantley Farm trucks.
Brantley said he hoped to harvest about two and a half bales per acre this year. He expects to get about 1,200 pounds of cotton fiber lint (the white fluffy part) per acre. And that’s why cotton was crowned king so many years ago. White gold, as it were. One bale will produce around 1,200 T-shirts. And we do love our shirts.
While cotton production is down in Arkansas—from around 1.1 million acres in 2006 to roughly 360,000 this year—it remains big business. Brantley said he’ll get around seven seeds per lock—a boll is made up of four of them—and therefore twenty-eight to thirty seeds per boll. And each seed produces about 30,000 cotton fibers. The seeds themselves are separated at the gin and used for cooking oils and similar products.
“Cotton was the crop,” Brantley emphasized. “It’s what developed the South.”
(For an education on that fascinating development, Brantley recommends John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son.)
Brantley’s cotton pickers will traverse, on average, about forty miles a day, removing bolls from the plants in row after row and wrapping them in pink plastic bales ninety-four inches wide and ninety-four inches tall – each one about 5,000 pounds. (And yes, pink because it’s October.)
Before the cotton is picked, fields are sprayed with a compound that drops the foliage leaving just stalks from which the machines can better separate the cotton. And once fields are harvested, Brantley’s men will put mowers on the tractors to shred the remaining plants into mulch, leaving the bed alone. Next spring, Brantley’s cotton fields will grow corn while his corn fields will switch to cotton.
Meanwhile, as cotton heads southeast to the gin, forty to fifty different varieties of pumpkins and pumpkin-gourd hybrids are destined for their final resting places on suburban thresholds in greater Little Rock. Some will be carved, some even baked.
Some may even be purchased by consumers wearing shirts fashioned from cotton grown on the Brantley farm.
SEE MORE “BRANTLEY FARM #5: HARVEST TIME” PHOTOS HERE