Names and terms can be deceptive and especially when they have long since stopped being used in everyday language. Choppin Cotton is just such a phrase.
I don’t know today how many people have ever seen a cotton field growing and could identify one if they drove past it. It’s not very hard once the cotton bolls have opened and the field turns into one giant, we can’t say ball but maybe, sheet of cotton. But in the early plant stages when people drive through around Cordele and Unadilla and Pinehurst and Pelham and Parrott, they might have trouble distinguishing what is cotton and what is soy beans from the busy interstate. There was a time when cotton was king everywhere, but today you’ll find a variety of crops and irrigation and pesticides and herbicides along with modern machinery have changed the complexion of farming from when I followed my Grandfather around in the fields of the family farm down in Sandy Point.
In a furniture store in Eastman, Georgia Mr. Edwards had an oil painting of workers picking cotton on the wall behind the sales counter. My memory tells me it was about a 2 foot wide by 3 foot tall picture, mostly in black and white. The workers were in the middle of the field as the picture was drawn and I commented on it.
Mr. Edwards said he liked the picture but that the person that painted it had surely never been to a cotton field and seen cotton being picked and certainly had never picked any. He said if I was a real country boy I would see the reason why.
Well, I was a country boy but I did not catch what he was talking about right off. Then he pointed it out to me. The workers were coming toward you in the picture in the very long rows of cotton but the whole field was still covered in cotton. In other words no cotton was showing having been picked. Mr. Edwards assumption was that the painter either did not realize the mistake or thought the picture would not be pretty with half the field missing the white cotton on the cotton stalks.
Farming today involves hard work especially on crops requiring a lot of manual labor like picking and gathering some crops require. Whether its sweet corn, peas, butterbeans, peaches tomatoes or watermelons there is a lot of work done by hand in the hot sun.
A lot of work by hand has been eliminated, however, and one such job is choppin cotton. And yes, chopping is spelled with a G on the end but in the rural south the G was usually silent. So, why bother with it at all?
I came along just as my grandfather was about to transition from mule power to tractor power. But in the early days even of tractor power there were come problems that had not been solved. Controlling weeds required plowing the crops with cultivating equipment to remove and/ or cover up the pesky weeds that would choke out the crop, use up the fertilizer and drink all the water. In some cases the weed was very troublesome in the picking and gathering stage and one of the worst was the cocklebur.
If you have never seen these devils the plant can grow very tall and have burrs about the size of your thumb and these things will attach themselves to clothes, mule tails, hair and just about anything they come in contact with. The best thing is to try to avoid letting them grow in the field.
With mules, and later tractors, the middles could be plowed and much of the weeds could be turned under with dirt from the plow or actually plowed up so the roots were exposed and the plant would die. The middles, of course were the spaces between the rows of plants.
But there were no herbicides in wide usage at that time and weeds not only grew in the middles but they grew in the row with the plants you were trying to raise. Those could not be plowed and in some cases you could not throw enough dirt over them with the cultivators to cover them up without covering up the crop plants too.
So that left the unpleasant and hard job of choppin the weeds out of the rows with a hoe. Yes, a whole field would have to be chopped.
That was hard work in the hot sun. But there was another problem and it was a particular problem for small kids that were trying to help. The Johnson grass and nut grass and coffee weeds and most of the others were easily distinguished from the cotton plant. But that dad gum cocklebur looked a lot like the cotton plant to me.
My grandfather gave me instructions on the process and gave me a hoe and showed me how to do it. I felt it was an honor to be there in the 95 degree heat with a hoe helping my grandfather.
I feel safe in saying there are no kids in our part of the world that have any idea of what this was like. And likely, none that you could get to do it today. The child welfare people would probably take kids away today for being made to chop anything other than a T-bone. I can tell you it was a good deal harder than playing video games and texting.
I was choppin along in my assigned row and my grandfather came to see how I was doing. I will always remember the kind and gentle way he told me what an idiot I was.
He said, “Son, you are doing a great job and that row is very clean now. There isn’t a cotton plant left standing. But the cockleburs really look nice.”
Yes, I had chopped up all the cotton plants and left the cockleburs. But that ended my having to chop cotton. Thank you Dow Chemical and Monsanto for broadleaf herbicides! There is no more choppin cotton.
We are often asked to evaluate people on their performance and to determine what kind of worker they are. It is common to hear, He or she is a hard worker. They are doing the best they can. They really want to do a good job. And then someone came along and realized they are choppin up the cotton and leaving the cockleburs. If you get my drift.
Sometimes, even in Sandy Point, we ask people to do jobs they aren’t trained for or just plain can’t handle. I can run as hard as I can and still never run a 4 minute mile. It is beyond my capability no matter how hard I try or how much I want to. I can’t play the left tackle position on the Chicago Bears football team.
Life is tough sometimes and we just have to find what we can do and do it well. A great gift is in being able to help others do the same.
© 2016 HJC