October is my favorite month of the year; perhaps it is yours also. There’s something about the light and the blue skies of October. We see our world with a brighter light and know it’s good to be alive on a beautiful autumn day. Traveling the roads of South Carolina, the first blush of autumn colors the landscapes, autumn wildflowers line the fence lines, and roadside fields reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting flash past, as perhaps does a pumpkin patch in anticipation of Halloween.
My favorite memories, however, belie October as the cotton boll flowers and reminds me of a winter’s snow. As far as I can see to the distant tree lines, fields of brilliant white cotton stretch across the landscape, and I am simply mesmerized by the grandeur of the sight before me. October snows in South Carolina? Yes, if you imagine …
A history of cotton farming in South Carolina dates back several centuries, and in the 1820s, more than half of the cotton grown in the United States came from South Carolina. The Piedmont region of the state was the dominant farming area. Cotton grown on sea islands was in high demand also due to the length and softer texture of its fiber. Infestation of the boll weevil, from central Mexico, destroyed the industry by 1929. The Great Depression followed the cotton industry crash, and several decades would pass before cotton began the journey back to agricultural relevance. Cotton production surpassed tobacco in the early 1990s. In 2021, an estimated 440,000 acres were planted in cotton, an increase of 37 percent from 2020. Orangeburg County contains the highest cotton acreage in our state.
Wes Woodard is the grandson of Frankie Woodard, who started Woodard Farms in 1962. When I first spoke with Wes about photographing his harvest, he told me an early morning photo session wouldn’t work because he could not “cut” any cotton until the cotton’s moisture content reached 12 percent, which usually occurs at 11 a.m. on most October days. I left Columbia around 8 a.m., and we met around 10:30 a.m. to discuss the day’s agenda.
A tall man, Wes has an easy personality. I simply told him I would follow his day’s routine of the harvesting process. I looked forward to standing and photographing in a cotton field instead of looking at it from the roadside.
We arrived at the field’s edge, where we parked our cars beside Wes’ truck and picker/baler. The picker was a huge John Deere machine, perhaps 10 feet off the ground. Wes checked his startup list and made sure all fluids, pressures, and settings were set for operation. I asked him how much this machine cost to purchase, and I was stunned to hear “close to a million dollars.”
I walked behind the baler as Wes drove into the field to harvest the crop. Inside the field lay several huge circular bales of cotton, enveloped in a thick yellow plastic. The plastic wrapping prevents contamination of the cotton from moisture and pests. It’s critical that moisture be kept out of the bales, ensuring the cotton fiber doesn’t degrade, before starting the ginning process. Ten minutes passed, and I noticed Wes and the baler were still in sight, along a distant tree line. The field was so huge that I couldn’t hear the baler working. It gave me an appreciation of the task ahead for Wes in harvesting the farm’s 2,400 acres. Rain was forecast in the coming days, and Wes knew he had to harvest as much cotton as possible in order to protect his harvest from moisture intrusion.
After several hours on foot, it was time to hitch a ride on the baler. Making my way to the inside of the cabin, I was amazed at the technology Wes uses in aiding his harvest. The enclosed cabin was air-conditioned, Wi-Fi and radio equipped, and computer monitors were stationed near the operator. The monitors displayed cutting height and fuel levels, and another monitor displayed the best direction and orientation to use cutting the plot of land being baled. Wes controlled the baler direction and speed with a joystick. Wes could instantly contact the baler’s manufacturer should any issues arise with his equipment.
Huge gains in technology provide efficiency to the harvesting process and save the farmer money. The baler Wes was driving replaces several pieces of equipment used previously in the field. These included trucks to unload and transport harvested cotton and to upload the cotton to large external balers that compress it, plus the manpower needed for each piece of equipment. I guess that million-dollar price tag starts to make more sense. One of the best uses of the baler is actually producing a bale, ready for transfer to the gin. The baler cuts the cotton flower, transfers the cotton to a compression bin, and once the proper weight is met, the cotton is baled in thick plastic, ready for transport to a local gin. The circular, finished bale slowly exits the rear of the baler, and is deposited on the field. In a sense, it looks similar to the baler laying an enormous “egg” onto the field.
Finished bales are transported to Coker Gin in Hartsville. In the gin’s yard are hundreds of yellow and pink bales, waiting to be ginned. John Deere makes the pink wrap available to farmers in support of breast cancer awareness. Inside the noisy gin, bales are separated and the cotton product is ginned. The invention of the gin revolutionized growing cotton, and I remember learning the name of Eli Whitney from my school days to this day. Ginning separates the cotton fiber from the seed using circular saws.
Once ginned, the cotton is compressed into a 500-pound bale. Each bale is identified and sampled before leaving the gin. Bale samples are sent to United States Department of Agriculture data centers and to the initial manufacturer of the upcoming cotton product. The USDA determines the fiber quality of each bale, and this information is shared with the cotton’s buyer to ensure only quality cotton fibers are manufactured for the consumer. The United States is the only country using this quality control method.
One consumer of Woodard Farms cotton is Covered in Cotton, a company started by Wes’ sister-in-law, Tracy Woodard, after a difficult health struggle. Tracy is married to Wes’ younger brother Ty, and in 2015, Tracy gave birth to twin boys — Tobin and Tyson. In December of 2015, Tobin was diagnosed with a rare case of bacterial meningitis and spent 35 days in the hospital. Tobin needed emergency brain surgery on Christmas Eve, and his prognosis was not good; doctors feared Tobin would lose his hearing and vision and possibly never develop cognitive skills. If you speak to Tracy, you quickly realize she is a woman of faith, and her faith during this time was tested. She remembers the outpouring of support and prayers from friends and South Carolinians. Tobin’s first nurse, Ali, gave Tobin a cotton blanket during his stay at the hospital. Miraculously, Tobin recovered fully from his sickness and indeed received a miracle. Tracy recalls how a simple act of kindness would later play a huge role in her life.
In 2017, Tracy awoke from a dream, grabbed a pen and paper, and wrote down everything she remembers hearing in the dream. Nurse Ali was even in the dream. “The Lord told me what I needed to do, and what name we were to use,” she says. Tracy told Ty her dream and what they were to do. Ty agreed, and their business developed, using cotton grown on Woodard Farms. Covered in Cotton was born.
Today, the business is thriving, and all vendors of the company are local businesses within 150 miles of the farm. They sell cotton throws, blankets, table runners, and towels, and the company donates blankets to children’s hospitals across South Carolina. For every 10 items sold, one item is donated. Tracy invites other farmers to make cotton products for donating to the local community.
I remember asking Wes what his favorite part is of being a farmer, and after thinking a few seconds, he replied, “A great crop.” When asked about his plans for the future, he said, “Stay the course.”
Farming is difficult — tomorrow can bring a storm and destroy months of labor and money spent on a crop never going to harvest. The cost of fuel and fertilizer has skyrocketed the last two years, and I can’t imagine how much the baler costs to finance each month. Let’s not forget the endless struggles against weeds, insects, and viruses that reduce the yields on cotton.
Wes told me the price of cotton varies each year, and he has seen prices range from $1 to $1.22 per pound within the last two years. “I’ve sold more cotton in my life in the 90 cents range though.”
I believe Tracy says it best: “We can’t control things — we manage risks. We learn some great life lessons on the farm. We’re proud to be farmers and show others how agriculture works.”
Sometimes on my travels, I’ll see farmers harvesting cotton at twilight, with baler lights on. Squeezing in a few more minutes, making the most of their calling in life. A great crop, a great life, a great faith.