There was a time when my father grew dryland cotton on his farm in the De Kaap Valley. He eschewed spraying the cotton in favour of allowing Helmeted Guineafowl to roam freely through the cotton fields to feed on the pests.
I remember anxious times waiting for the rain; checking the flowers on the cotton plants; walking through the rows looking at the swelling cotton bolls; cotton pickers moving through the lands; heaps of cotton piling up in the shed; and large sacks being filled with cotton before being loaded on the back of the truck to be taken to the cotton gin in Barberton. There even used to be an annual Cotton Festival in that town.
This picture shows the start of this process, when the first pickings of cotton were loaded onto an old wagon in the shed prior to being bagged. I am standing in it together with my eldest brother.
Growing cotton had its moments and the boll weevil is a particularly nasty pest to be reckoned with – which is why we couldn’t resist giving my father the 78 rpm record of The Boll Weevil Song by Brook Benton. The introduction seems innocuous:
Let me tell ya a story about a boll weevil
Now, some of you may not know, but a boll weevil is an insect
And he’s found mostly where cotton grows
Now, where he comes from, hmm, nobody really knows
But this is the way the story goes
To the horror of the farmer, the boll weevil sounds delighted to have found a home for his whole darn family. Then comes the desperation: The farmer said to the boll weevil “Say, why do you pick my farm?” This is aggravated by the response of the boll weevil:
And the boll weevil called the farmer, ‘n’ he said
“Ya better sell your old machines
‘Cause when I’m through with your cotton, heh
You can’t even buy gasoline.”
(I’m gonna stake me a home, gotta have a home)
Cotton is no longer grown there. The cotton gin closed down decades ago. There is no longer any reason to hold a Cotton Festival. Life moves on – imports grow …