Cotton Links

- My Turn -

A Lifetime In Cotton

By Bill Mayfield
Silerton, Tenn.

When I say that cotton has been a part of my entire life, it’s not an exaggeration. Even though some folks remember me as a West Tennessee kid who eventually worked for USDA and always wore a coat and tie to meetings, there is another side to my career that you might find entertaining. Everybody has a different story in our industry, and that’s what makes all of us so unique. For example, both of my grandparents were sharecroppers. My family depended on 15-20 acres of cotton for our primary source of income. We chopped and picked our own cotton with the help of some neighbor’s kids. My father was a good farmer. He had a 700-pound per acre average yield on marginal soils in the late 1950s.

My parents bought our home place in 1955. This is the first land owned by any of my family. It includes about 150 acres of hills with natural hardwood timber and about 90 acres of open land. Dad was a World War II veteran so he got a veteran’s loan. He paid about $70 per month on the place for 25 years. It was a great day when the loan was finally paid off.

Back in those days, when we arrived at the gin, Dad would give me some money and tell me to go uptown. After a while, I figured out why he didn’t want me to hang around the gin office. Each time the seed truck returned from the oil mill in Memphis, the driver would deliver a case of whiskey to the gin office. So much for secrecy!

After graduation from college, I was tempted to go back to the farm because my father had become disabled, and I could have rented the home place. Again, they discouraged the thought. During the 20 years that I was with USDA in Memphis, I farmed the home place on weekends and at night.

My farming operation is so small that I can only justify worn out or obsolete equipment. In the late 1980s I bought a two-row, International 626 cotton picker from a neighbor for $750. The brakes did not work on the old machine, so the only way to control the speed was with the engine throttle. One day I was going down the steep hill to the cotton field, and the picker jumped out of gear. As it began to accelerate toward the creek, I turned it sharply to the right to stop it. The momentum of the machine and the cotton in the basket tipped the tricycle picker. I jumped out of the cab as it rolled. The picker stopped on its side with the cotton spilled in the middle of the creek. I was not seriously injured but my chest was quite sore for a few weeks.

After retirement from USDA, one of my lifetime ambitions was fulfilled. My wife Gail, our Labrador retriever, Vollie, (as in Tennessee Vols) and I live on a hill that overlooks the home place. I have expanded the farm somewhat, and I rent another farm from a relative a few miles away. The operation includes about 70 head of cattle that require about 100 acres of cropland for pasture and hay and about 80 acres of soybeans, cotton or corn. I do all of the work myself with four-row equipment.

Gail and I are also involved in the community. Last year I was elected mayor of Silerton, Tenn. At that time, the population was 60, making us the smallest town in Tennessee, but after a new census, our population is now 118.

We have no employees, no taxes and very few services. Our total budget is less than $20,000
per year.

Looking back, the industry gave me many awards and lots of recognition. All of it is appreciated, but the highest honor was when farmers and ginners asked my advice and sometimes invested serious money because of what I told them.

I treasure my experiences and relationship with the cotton industry. I hope to maintain them throughout my life. Thanks for a good ride!

– Bill Mayfield, Silerton, Tenn.

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