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It’s pickin’ time

Illustration by Dennis Auth
Illustration by Dennis Auth


In 1956, my Daddy’s tractor business went bottom up – a victim of recession and a switch from row crops to pine trees. So Daddy went back to teaching school, which was what he did before trying his hand at business.

When summer came, he earned extra money measuring cotton.

Today, not many folks know about cotton measuring. To better control production and keep prices stable, government planners assigned each farm an allotment based on some bureaucratic calculus I still don’t understand. Put simply, the big farms were allowed to plant big fields and the small farms were told to keep it small.

In my county, where cotton was usually raised to supplement an income, few of the fields we measured were more than 20 acres — most were far less.

Getting on to pickin’ time

I got cotton in the bottom land

It’s up and growin’ and I got a good stand

My good wife and them kids of mine

Gonna get new shoes come pickin’ time. 

­–Johnny Cash, “Pickin’ Time”

To make sure farmers did not plant beyond what the government allowed, “field agents” were sent out to measure the planting and determine the acreage. If the farmer overplanted, he was told to plow it up or pay a fine. The farmer had to decide whether it was best to pay it off or plow it under. Thus another element of uncertainty was added to a way of life already at the mercy of weather, weeds and weevils.

Weekday mornings we piled into Daddy’s WWII surplus Jeep and off we went. When we arrived at a farm, we invited the owner to accompany us and watch while we measured.

During those months we met a lot of farmers, but one stands out from the rest.

He was an elderly black man who took us out to his patch. He was proud of it, and should have been. The middles were plowed clean, the rows chopped, plants growing tall and healthy. If there was ever a field capable of producing that prayed-for-bale-to-the-acre, this was it.

Only there was no acre.

Just two-tenths.

That was his allotment – two-tenths of an acre.

We measured it quickly and when we were done, I asked him why he went to all that trouble for such a small crop.

He considered me, kindly, and said, “I gotta have something for my mule to do.”

I had seen the animal in the lot by the barn. Fat, sleek, and like its owner, graying.

Man and mule, bound together by that slender thread called cotton. Each needing, depending on, the other.

Soon they would lay by the crop and come fall, it would be picked, ginned and sold. Then the farmer could pay his debts, buy things for the family, and get some sweet feed for the mule.

After that, the farmer and his friend could rest till it was time to plow again.

That was their world, a world made of cotton.


Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at