King Cotton

Published 9:30 am Thursday, March 23, 2023

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WOODVILLE – It’s probably a safe bet to say if Johnny Griffin pricked his finger with a sharp object, a boll of cotton would appear rather than a drop of blood.

“Cotton….it’s in my blood, it always has been and it always will be,” said the 72-year-old farmer / cotton gin operator from Woodville.

At his office in Woodville, Johnny Griffin looks at photos of the family’s farming operations that have been a part of the Bertie County agricultural scene since 1920. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

He’s old enough to remember mule-driven wagons full of freshly picked cotton lining the street leading to his family’s cotton gin, which was built around 1920 by his grandfather, Charles B. Griffin, and his grandfather’s brother, Thomas Griffin. At that time they were doing farming business as Griffin Brothers, which included tobacco warehouses in Windsor, a blacksmith shop in Woodville, and about 300 head of cattle.

And now Johnny Griffin is in charge of the family’s gin as well as one of the major producers of cotton in Bertie County where he and his son, joined by two other employees, grow 2,400 acres of the fluffy commodity that boasts a universal appeal. He has also served for 35 years on the Bertie County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

Prior to moving back to his native Woodville in 1982, Griffin – who had attended NC State University – lived and worked on Ocracoke Island for 10 years. There he built a business that purchased seafood from commercial fishermen as well from the local crabbers.

“I came back home to farm the family land,” he said, referencing himself as the next generation behind what his father, Charles (Charlie) B. Griffin Jr., and uncle, Burgess Griffin, had maintained.

“At that time I was working about 800-to-900 acres with my own equipment. “I helped out at the [cotton] gin,” he added.

At approximately the same time, the boll weevil eradication program was finally seeing good results.

“There was probably only four to five farmers in all of Bertie County who were raising cotton in the early to mid 1980’s,” Griffin noted. “Up until that time, the boll weevil had put most cotton farmers out of business. When we finally eradicated that rascal, the cotton business picked back up.”

Johnny’s first cousin B.B. Griffin (the son of Burgess Griffin) came onboard in 1985 after working with Gregory Poole Equipment.

“We sold the herd of cattle and invested that money in upgrading the cotton gin in 1987,” Johnny Griffin said. “We did another major upgrade to the gin in 1993, installing the presses that make the universal density (smaller) bales.”

“B.B. worked really hard to get the gin to where it is today,” Griffin said of his cousin who retired at age 73. “I’ve operated it for the past five years as Woodville Gin LLC.”

Meanwhile, the family farming business changed its name to Griffin Farming Partnership. That business now includes Johnny’s son, Mac, who returned home to farm the land in 2011.

Johnny recalled the early days of the ginning business that would see a volume of roughly 300 to 400 bales a year. When the new gin went into operation in 1987, it churned out 7,000-to-8,000 bales a year.

Woodville Gin LLC works around the clock over a 10-week period from October through early December. It ginned 44,000 bales of cotton in 2022. Contributed Photo

“Since I have taken over, it’s grown to as high as 44,000 bales a year; we gin a lot of cotton for other farmers as well as our own,” Griffin said.

To show his appreciation to his ginning customers, Griffin stages an annual meal for them.

“We just had one for about 80 people on Tuesday (March 14),” he shared. “We feed them, give them t-shirts and caps and this year we gave them an appreciation payment ($8 per bale) due to the increase in the price we received from selling the cotton seed. Everybody was very happy with that.

“We gin it; I’m not a merchant so we don’t store it. I’m a ginner so we gin it and transport it to wherever the grower has arranged for a buyer. We keep the seed; that’s where we make our money,” he added.

Griffin remembered the days where the cost to gin one bale of cotton was around $35. Now it’s $70.

“Last year alone, diesel fuel was double the price, natural gas (used in the drying process at the gin) was double; electricity is up 30 to 40 percent; all the bagging and ties we use for the bales increased dramatically in price; and the cost of labor has gone up,” he stressed. “That latter cost (labor) really hits hard during the 10 weeks that the gin is running 24/7.”

Griffin said the 2022 cotton season was the best he has ever seen.

“It was the best crop, the highest yield, and the best ginning season we’ve had,” he stated. “We didn’t have any major storms. The good Lord looked after us.”

Even with a big increase for the cost of seed ($600 for a unit – which will plant roughly five acres), Griffin said the yield was equally as high.

“We averaged over two and one-half bales (1,325 pounds) per acre,” he said. “We plant 100 percent Deltapine cotton seed; I believe they have developed the best genetics within their seed.”

Another plus is the fact that Griffin is enrolled in a program where he has four-to-five 15-acre test plots per year.

“I get to evaluate what those seeds are capable of producing a year or two before they are available commercially,” he said. “By the time they get to that stage, I have a pretty good idea of what that seed can do or can’t do.”

Griffin and his son, plus two other employees, work 2,400 acres of cotton and 600 acres of soybeans each year. He likes those two particular crops because neither requires tilling the soil in advance of planting.

“I haven’t broke land in over 20 years,” he stressed. “We run two planters at which time we also apply a herbicide and a little fertilizer. On a good day we can plant nearly 300 acres of cotton with two, 12-row planters.”

Advances in technology are also witnessed during the harvest season. Griffin said when he started farming in 1982, cotton was machine picked and dumped into a trailer that was taken to the gin. In the 1990s, cotton was picked and placed in a module builder that compressed it into a 13-to-15 bale unit. The newest revolution is within the harvester that compresses the cotton into round bales that are individually wrapped and left in the field to be picked up later.

“With labor being hard to find, the round bales reduce the number of people needed during harvest as well as speeding up the process,” Griffin said. “We can harvest 130 acres of cotton a day with two machines and three people. With the modules, you needed three to four people on each to keep the pickers moving in the field.”

Within the gin, Griffin said newer equipment is cleaner and faster.

“It’s an industry that I love,” Griffin stressed. “I think we here in the United States grow the best cotton in the world. Our cotton is the most in demand because of its quality. We pull samples from every bale to determine quality. In the past two years we’ve had the highest graded cotton (fiber length, fiber thickness, strength, and color). That adds to the price that a farmer receives per bale. Last year we were three cents per pound above the base grade.”

Griffin already has his sights set high on what he hopes will be another banner season in 2023.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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