Cotton gin cleans debris, gets crops ready to sell

ISLE OF WIGHT — Dust flies outside Windsor's Commonwealth Gin on a nippy October morning, as Isle of Wight County's cotton harvest begins what's likely to be a global journey that transforms locally grown cotton bolls into T-shirts, jeans and the like.

A tractor-trailer carrying a 20,000-pound cotton module weighs in, then rolls the few feet from the scales to a rumbling conveyor belt leading into the gin off Blackwater Drive. Modules are the massive, tarp-covered blocks of newly picked cotton that farmers number and leave in fields until gins pick them up for processing.

Workers, wearing ear plugs and face masks, guide the block of newly harvested cotton onto the gin's module feeder. It's deafening as the bundle is broken apart and sucked up into the two-story vacuum that separates the cotton lint – the good stuff destined to become the fabric of your life - from the trash.

No chemicals are involved in ginning, said Commonwealth Gin's agronomist Johnny Parker. The process primarily involves heat, hot air and rotating spindles that pull out the debris, said Parker who is an expert in soil management and field-crop production.

With ginning facilities in Windsor and Franklin, Commonwealth Gin is on track to exceed the 60,000 bales ginned last year, said Parker.

"I'm expecting Virginia to break state records this year," said Parker.

Virginia farmers planted 85,000 acres of cotton this year, significantly less than the 115,000 acres harvested in 2011. But Parker expects record crop yields per acre, the product of a healthy growing season with none of the weather-related complications of last year that included excessive rain during harvest.

Cotton production was valued at $7.62 billion in 2011, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The primary place cotton is grown in Virginia is here in the southeastern area of the commonwealth, and the state's top three cotton-producing localities are Suffolk, and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

The ginning process

Four cotton gins operate in Virginia today: Commonwealth Gin's two facilities in Southampton County and Windsor Suffolk Cotton Gin in Suffolk, and Mid-Atlantic Cotton Gin in Emporia.

More than 60 percent of each module is trash that gets kicked out through ginning, said Parker. It takes less than 30 minutes for the gin to separate debris, such as dried up leaves and sticks, from the cotton lint during the first round of cleaning. The cotton goes through a second – and, if necessary, third - cleaning process to remove cottonseeds before the lint is compressed into 480-pound bales that will be sold to textile mills, Parker said.

Leaving little to guesswork, Commonwealth Gin uses cameras to monitor how much trash remains in cotton lint after the first two cleanings, Parker said.

"You have to be gentle with cotton and recognize that every bale is different," he said. "Some cotton bales need more cleaning than others, and we want to make sure we don't overdo it."

Extracted cottonseeds are blown through a narrow pipe that extends to a separate building where they drop to the floor. But the cottonseed is not a discarded product.

Since last summer's drought ravaged corn crops in the Midwest, the value of cottonseed – which Commonwealth Gin sells as a feed for dairy cows – has shot up, said Parker. The company buys cottonseed from producers and this year, Parker expects it will at least offset ginning costs for most customers. Legally, farmers are prohibited from keeping or reusing seeds from year to year because of patents related to genetically modified seeds that make them resistant to most pests and weeds.

Grading cotton

Just before the bales are wrapped in heavy plastic, a gin worker snatches two handfuls of cotton – one from each side of the bale – and stuffs them into bags labeled with the bale's computer-generated bale number.

The samples are sent to the Florence, S.C., office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the evaluation and grading of each bale, said J. Michael Quinn, president of Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative Inc. in Garner, N.C. Each bale's grade is entered into a database accessible to both sellers and buyers of cotton, he said.

USDA analysts primarily use three factors to grade cotton, Quinn said. They include:

•The color of the cotton.