A decade ago, when many north-Alabama farmers dropped cotton and got busy building grain infrastructure, their counterparts in Cherokee County kept doing what they knew best: cotton.
That confidence in the crop that built their farms seems wise now considering the decline of corn and soybeans, and put them at the epicenter of a cotton rebirth in the region. Drive east from Centre toward the Georgia state line, and the new high-tech Cherokee Gin and Cotton Co. stands as a testament to their tenacity. Five years in the planning, it's a better-than-$10-million investment, serving at least nine counties in north Alabama and Georgia, even reaching into middle Tennessee.
Just like farms, gins benefit from economies of scale. Consolidation has long been the byword in the ginning industry. Twenty years ago, there were 1,113 gins in the U.S., according to USDA-NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) figures. In 1998, Alabama had 51 gins; Cherokee County had four. By 2018, numbers had dropped to 532 gins nationally, 29 in Alabama and one in the county.
That one county gin cranking out bales from downtown Centre became the genesis for the new gin. The partnership there between Nick and Freida McMichen, and Richard Lindsey and his son, Rich, formed in 2000 when Jordan Cotton and Lindsey Bros. closed their smaller gins in the eastern part of the county and together bought Public Gin in town. Freida McMichen is part of the Jordan family, in the ginning business here since 1896. Lindsey Bros. operated a gin since 1934 about 10 miles away from Jordan's.
The McMichens and the Lindseys understood Cherokee Gin and Cotton Co. had to evolve to survive. After meticulous planning and visits to gins around the Cotton Belt, they elected to get bigger even though the original facility had become the state's largest-producing gin and much more high-tech. They broke ground on Feb. 24, 2018, and ginned the first cotton Jan. 23, 2019.
George Eubanks, who began ginning his cotton at the Jordan family gin in 1979, thinks the new facility will benefit both local growers and the county in general. "I am a cotton farmer. That's what I do. Making that kind of investment is a really good deal for farmers like me as well as the local economy," the Alabama farmer says.
"I like to keep my business local when possible," he adds. "A state-of-the-art gin located right here is a pretty big deal. I'm not an expert about gin technology, but getting cotton out of the field and ginned in a timely manner with good quality is a good thing."
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TECHNOLOGY DEFINES GIN
McMichen believes the new gin is a world leader in technology. It's the first ground-up construction that utilizes the Kelley Electric GinManager throughout the facility. With one PLC (programmable logic controller) controlling all the primary gin machinery (from the module feeder to the press), the drying andmoisture-restoration controls, the air and shaft monitoring systems and the flow of cotton, it allows unprecedented automation capabilities.
The owners also incorporated a Motor Control Center run by Ethernet that ties into the GinManager to further enhance the facilities' automation. They also chose to put in as many fully automated machines as possible.
"I'm not sure if we are the only gin but definitely one of only a few that has a bagger with bale stacker, strapper and fully automatic trash press with strapper," McMichen says.
"It has the best turnout and highest-quality fiber possible," he continues. "Yes, there are a lot of uncertainties in the cotton business, but there are uncertainties everywhere. One thing is sure: If you're going to grow cotton, you have to have a gin. A lot of places across the country lost cotton infrastructure as farmers got out of cotton."
The old gin downtown was designed to produce 35 bales an hour. The new one can do 50 bales an hour, or 50,000 bales a year. It can be pushed to 60 bales an hour and expected to turn out 75,000 to 80,000 bales this season. Before long, that could become 100,000, Richard Lindsey says.
Rich Lindsey, hands-on manager for the new gin, says the Kelley Electric GinManager control system keeps all aspects of the gin at optimum capacity. The system can be monitored from anywhere at any time, including Kelley's headquarters at Kennett, Missouri.
"The Kelley people came here and programmed it to run this gin," Rich says. "Maintenance can be done remote control. One big aspect is moisture monitoring and recovery. It will put a little moisture back in the cotton before it goes to the bale press, which improves efficiency. The burners are controlled automatically. Everything is automatic."
Cherokee Fabrication Co. built the two Magnum 270 gin stands along with most of the other gin machinery at its factory in Salem, Alabama.
They wanted to handle all aspects of the cotton business right up to marketing, so they built a 25,000-bale warehouse, which is already expanding to hold 50,000 bales. They also built a cottonseed warehouse.
This cotton is primarily sold by brokers and shipped to mills in Asia, as well as domestic mills in Georgia. "Some even goes to a mill in Leesburg, Alabama, eight miles down the road. But, everything goes into the warehouse, whether it's moving eight miles or 8,000," Richard Lindsey says.
The new gin should help the resurging north-Alabama cotton industry, says Eddie McGriff, Alabama regional Extension agent. In 2019, North Alabama planted 169,069 acres of cotton, according to Boll Weevil Eradication Program figures. In 2018, it had 160,500 acres, according to USDA-NASS numbers.
"Every year over the last three years, there have been new cotton growers," McGriff says. "New cotton varieties have better yield potential, and that's a big thing. We're getting yields that were unheard of 10 to 15 years ago. The new genetics is kind of driving the trend."
McGriff adds many of the new cotton growers will stay in the business for the foreseeable future because of the commitment to cotton harvesters.
Nevertheless, the decline in gin numbers probably won't turn around anytime soon.
The new Cherokee Gin fits right into the trend line, says Harrison Ashley, National Cotton Council vice president of ginner services. "Ginning capacity has increased significantly. Gins are using more horsepower and ginning at much faster rates while also reducing labor through automation. Ginning costs per bale are generally lower in larger gins. The economies of scale that lead to mergers lead to bigger gins, just as it does with farms."
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