Larry McClendon wakes up every morning at 4am. Eager to get out before sunrise he pulls on his boots and gets into his pickup without breakfast. This is his time, when he’ll drive out into his extensive cotton fields and connect with his crop. “Growing cotton’s kinda like raisin’ children,” he says in a soft, Arkansas drawl. “You’ve got to be there with ‘em and if you spend the time and the effort you’ll probably have good kids. That’s kinda what cotton’s like to me.” Larry’s morning ritual highlights his thoughtful, reflective approach to his profession. “You’ve got to be attuned to it. You need to be in the crop physically, you need to be watching the growth habits, seeing everything that happens out here and making adjustments as you go.”
Larry is one of a small number of US cotton growers who has managed to thrive and grow — with inevitable setbacks — for the past 39 years. He remembers his best years, and he learned from his worst. He says he’s seen almost everything in his time as a cotton grower. “It’s been a good journey,” he says in his typically understated manner. “A lot of challenges, but it’s just…it’s absolutely magnificent to grow a good crop.”
Larry’s land, which he has accumulated steadily over the years, sits in the Mississippi flood plains of Eastern Arkansas, about an hour outside of Memphis TN. It is flat and incredibly open, the sky stretching out on all sides. It feels like a land of endless possibilities. Larry clearly sees things in a similar way. “Everybody that grows cotton is inherently tied to the land and tied to the crop — not just monetarily but emotionally as well.”
Stepping into the cotton fields for the first time, it’s easy to see why farmers like Larry derive so much pleasure from their chosen crop. A field in full bloom, just before harvest, is a truly breathtaking sight. “It’s a beautiful crop to grow,” Larry concedes, cradling the cotton in his weathered hands. “It flowers and has lovely blooms in it. To think that you go from a seed to this in five months — it really is just kind of a day to day miracle.”
While Larry clearly has an emotional bond with his crop, he’s able to take a step back and assess the cotton industry from a business perspective. He says that he knows almost all the cotton growers in the US — a small group by all accounts — from the Carolinas to California. Being part of organizations like Cotton Inc., who organize events and help foster community spirit amongst cotton growers, has helped introduce him to a lot of his contemporaries. He is clearly very proud to be a part of this small but highly productive group. “It’s a very accumulative effort out here,” he says. “From the stand point of the producer all the way through the processors, all the way through to the mills and to the retailers. I think there’s a great concerted effort on everybody’s behalf for US cotton.”
Despite the drive and effort over recent years to help reinvigorate the US cotton industry, it’s not been plain sailing. Cotton growers continually face tough competition from overseas producers, while most of the cotton that is grown in the US is shipped abroad to be milled and spun into fabrics and clothing. In a faintly ludicrous twist, that same cotton will then return to the US in finished garments to be sold in retail stores around the country. “People would love to see the cotton industry expand,” he says. “We lost a big part of our milling segment a few years ago when the mills moved overseas. I think everybody would be hopeful that at some point some of that would come back.”
But Larry’s years of experience have not left him bitter, and he remains deeply optimistic that as consumer trends and knowledge grows, and as the movement for greater US production gathers pace, US cotton will be taken along with it. Partly based on the support of the various cotton organizations, Larry feels confident that the cotton industry will survive and be viable long term. “We’re able to adapt, we’re able to move forward, we’re able to grow even in the face of adversity, and so I think we still have a good solid future out here.”
As consumers, our understanding of the processes that take place in industries like cotton, and the changes that are needed, are an essential part of its future development. With erudite and passionate people like Larry to help us, it makes our job that much easier.
American Cotton from Show Love on Vimeo.
*This article first appeared on Medium.com on February 13 2014