The King's Reign
From the Editor
photograph by Pancaketom | Dreamstime.com
In the beginning there was cotton. So begins the genesis of Memphis.
The city was built on the mix of agriculture and transport due to its geographic perch on the Mississippi River, in striking distance of the Delta’s fertile soils and, it must be remembered, its slave labor. The economy grew exponentially, and the wealth of generations was built up, once the Memphis Cotton Exchange was established after the Civil War, in the 1870s. In the early and mid-twentieth century, cotton continued to flex its muscle, putting the city’s fortunes on its back.
Yet, today, cotton and most all of agriculture is no longer fore in Memphians’ minds when they think about what makes our economy strong. What happened to cotton? I would posit that nothing happened; it’s Memphis that diversified and got busy with other pursuits. The word “culture” hides in “agriculture,” and it’s that way of life that Memphis has mostly divorced from.
Part of the reason is that farming has gotten exponentially more efficient over time. “We now produce on an acre of land what it used to take us five to 10 acres,” reports Tim Price of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association. “We do it with far less input and labor.”
With less need for labor, we’ve migrated back into the cities, and generations have grown up without ever having stepped foot on a working farm. The culture is mostly gone from Memphis. Cotton Row isn’t even downtown anymore — it’s in Cordova now!
The “agri” part of the equation, though, is still very much alive in Memphis today. Agriculture remains big business; it doesn’t need as many people to sustain it because of technology, and with advanced science improving crop yields every year, today’s farmer is far more efficient — read: potentially profitable — than ever.
Another immensely positive impact of efficient farming: It frees up hundreds of thousands of acres of land that would otherwise be used to produce food that can instead be protected as wildlife preserves and forests.
No organization illustrates how successful and popular a movement it is as the conservation group Ducks Unlimited. It is based in Memphis because of the efforts of cotton magnate William Dunavant Jr. The CEO of Ducks Unlimited, Dale Hall, is on our cover this issue. Observe him in his natural habitat on page 60.
Researching our first annual MBQ Ag Issue (see the story beginning on page 31), I was constantly surprised and impressed by how deep the tentacles of agribusiness remain in the city. Numerous companies are still involved in the industry, either directly or indirectly, and many Mid-Southerners own land that’s farmed even if they don’t actually live on the farm anymore.
I also saw that Mid-South agriculture may be the most globalized of our industries. Domestic policy in China — how its government keeps its cotton farmers and textile mills happy when one wants the highest prices for cotton and the other wants the lowest — can have major repercussions here. A cotton farmer in the Delta might lose his or her shirt or have a great year depending upon the decisions of Chinese government officials.
The first (and my favorite thing) that comes to mind when I think of cotton is my family, particularly my Uncle Tite and Aunt Virginia, from the Bootheel of Missouri. I grew up visiting family in Kennett many times a year and would frequently go out to my uncle’s cotton farm, ride with him on his tractors and combines; wonder at the distant horizon and all those tens of thousands of little plants producing white caps in between me and it; and marvel at the aerobatics of crop dusters attacking and then perilously swooning away from the ground.
It’s a feeling that will linger my whole life. Agriculture remains in my DNA.