A backpackers guide to cotton harvesting
Trip Start Nov 22, 2010
112Trip End Ongoing
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Since I started working the cotton harvest recently I had many questions from people at home in Europe about how cotton is actually grown and harvested (Europe does not produce any cotton and hence is unfamiliar with the methods used). Therefore, hereby a comprehensive guide to the cotton harvest in Australia.
Cotton is planted in October (spring in the Southern Hemisphere); nowadays most of the cotton grown is genetically modified to be roundup (glyphosate) resistant. This cotton requires 85% less chemicals during the growth process and is therefor more economical for growers. Farmers still have to plant 10% conventional cotton (requirement from Monsanto) though; so the bugs and insects have somewhere to feast on instead of getting resistant against glyphosate. Cotton grows during the summer and requires loads of sunshine and moderate rainfall (600 to 1200 MM). Farms that have water rights (the right to pump water from a local river into a dam) and are able to irrigate their land plant cotton as dense as possible on the paddock; farms without irrigation rely on the years before planting to fill the moisture profile of the soil (they don't get close to 600 MM per year here) and the farmers still don't plant cotton very dense (so that the cotton that is planted has enough moisture). The farm where I work plants 40% of the paddock (2 rows planted, 3 rows free), this enables the pickers to pick 2 rows at a time and the plants still have enough moisture in the adjourning soil.
The cotton harvest starts around April. First the cotton is sprayed for defoliation (causing the leaves to fall off), making it easier to harvest the cotton. At the same time another chemical is used to cause the cotton balls to open up and let the cotton fibers out. A soon as the leaves fall off the plant and the cotton is dry and white, the cotton gets picked. The picking happens by a harvester that picks a number of rows of cotton at a time. When the cotton picker has a full basket, they empty this in a boll buggy (a buggy specially designed for cotton). The buggy then empties the load into a module maker, where the cotton gets compressed. After compression of heaps of cotton, a module is formed (approx 10 by 3 by 4 meters); making it easier to transport. Since a few years there are also pickers that create round bales, eliminating the need for buggies and module makers. They are not ominously used yet, some quote a few technical difficulties, higher ginning prices, or the $750.000 purchase price of one of those machines...
The cotton then gets transported to the cotton gin (short for cotton engine), where the cotton fibers get separated from their seeds. The pure cotton then gets sold to (mostly) Asian countries for clothing production. The seed (3/4 of the harvest) can be used for cattle feed or the production of cottonseed oil (used in a wide variety of processed foods). The price the farmer gets for his cotton is determined by the New York Mercantile exchange. Farmers can either sell their cotton when they produce or even sell it years before production (to get a better price, but obviously also have a higher risk). The quality of cotton also has influence on the price; color, length and strength of the fiber all influence the price.
During the harvest I have driven the boll buggy and worked the module builder as well. But... we still have 1 more massive paddock of cotton to harvest in a few weeks time and I might still get a crack at working the cotton picker! I do already have some experience in fixing cotton pickers, especially the heads in front of the picker that get the cotton off the plant. They are prone to breaking down and creating trouble, so enough work there! We even had a few iron parts of the heads break loose and wreak havoc all over the show; as far as creating a fire! If you've ever seen pure cotton burn you know the mess this has been. The pickers have a special 'fire-button' which makes the picker dump its load of cotton and then automatically shut off... They knew it was gonna happen!
If you are a backpacker reading this and wonder how you can get a job in the cotton harvest or just want some more information, I can recommend to contact the company I work via, OBI recruitment, on email@example.com