I am a lucky guy. My job and travel constantly allows me to meet amazing people throughout the world. Over the years I was fortunate to learn from many bright scientists, basically getting private lessons in fields such as genetics, water-policies, land-subsidence or paleo climatology, have discussions with activists about farmers suicides, trade policies and land-reforms. I have spent days or weeks with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, slum-dwellers and Jesuit monks. Many of these meetings serve as stories by themselves, brilliant moments, new thoughts and ideas and worth to remember. I met Cindy and Doyle Buxkemper at Busters Gin in Ropesville and they invited me over to spend some time with them on their farm to document their life and farming practice. As always this is a two way street. As a photographer working closely with people I often share as much about my life as I learn about my subjects life. So on the first evening we talked at length about the economics of farming cotton, of surviving on a small family farm, subsidizing ones labor of love with town jobs in Cindy’s case, and my wedding, anniversary or odd magazine assignments and camera promotion jobs. I shared how my funding for the project was slowly running out after three months spent on the ground for each part of the story in Central Asia, India and Texas. How no magazine wanted to print the story or backed out in the last moment when the section editor changed. I talked about doubts as to if this was ever going to go anywhere or if eventually I would need to look for mediocre assignments to pay the bills. In short: We found common ground in our struggle to keep our heads above water in our very different industries and lives. Nothing though prepared me for the next evening. When we said goodnight after a long dusty day of harvest Cindy suddenly put two 100 Dollar bills in my hand. She and Doyle had decided to support my project and keep me going. It left me nearly speechless and with tears in my eyes. I had to decline of course. This is to keep my independence as a journalist I can not take money from subjects. But I will always remember this moment and generous gesture.
For many years the Cindy and Doyle Buxkemper stayed mostly away from genetically modified seeds. They saved their own seeds, reducing the costs per bag to 15 $ instead of 350 $ for some GMO variety. But over time all of their neighbors switched to Round Up Ready cotton - plants genetically modified to survive exposure to glyphosate, the worlds most used herbicide that lets all other plants wither. Regular chemical drifts from their neighbors fields started to reduce the Buxkempers’ yield. So in 2013 they were forced to change to the much more expensive genetically modified seeds. And this year they had to invest 25000 dollar just for the seed on their 700 acres.
Doyle Buxkemper prides himself of being a very conservative farmer using his equipment for a long time and doing most of the repairs himself. This has helped him to keep the costs down and run a profitable business in most years. The four-row-stripper that was old in 2008 when I first visited still runs well. Last fall though Doyle bought another stripper with a guidance system, that keeps the machine on track with a higher precision and never gets tired. Again this stripper harvests four rows and Doyle bought it used. For their small farm a larger more expensive machine wouldn’t be financially viable.
Cindy Buxkemper runs the family’s module builder at night after a long day of work at her job in town. Like many small family farmers, Cindy needs to subsidize their farm with her job as a legal secretary. Although the farm turns a profit in most years, the town job is the safety net the Buxkempers’ need to live a comfortable life. It also provides health insurance that would be too expensive otherwise. Cindy started the town job after two bad years in a row had pushed the farm to the edge.
Cindy and Doyle Buxkemper run a small family cotton farm. In 2008 they farmed 900 acres but since have lost their lease on 200 acres. The Buxkempers’ decided to stay small without hiring labor or buying new, expensive machinery. During the harvest season Jimmy Angerer, a long time family friend of Cindys’ parents, helped the Buxkempers’ to bring in the harvest as Cindy was working a day job in town to supplement the farm income. Jimmy stoped working with them four years ago, when his Alzheimer became more severe and passed on in February of 2017. Now the Buxkempers’ son Drury helps on the farm, whenever he finds time besides his job as a lieutenant at the fire station.
On the 8000 acre farm of the Glen family multiple harvesters and a fleet of module builders and boll buggies work in concert during the cotton harvest. Before cotton modules were invented the loose harvested cotton was moved in trailers from the field to the cotton gin. After mechanical harvesters were introduced in the mid-1940s the limited capacity of trailers slowed down the harvest. The expensive harvesters often had to sit idle on the field till the trailers returned from the cotton gin, which also couldn’t expand ginning capacity at the rate of harvesting improvements. Cotton module builders, developed by Texas A&M University and introduced in 1972, solved the logistical bottleneck by allowing cotton to be harvested quickly and compressed into large modules that can be temporarily stored at the edge of the field. When over time cotton harvesters grew from 2-row to 4-row and by now 8-row simultaneous harvesting, the wider headers made it impossible to dump the cotton directly into the module builder. So the boll buggy was introduced, a cart that transports harvested cotton between the harvester operating in the field and the module builders at the edge of the field. Today more than 90% of harvested cotton in the USA is compacted with module builders. Since 2008 though a new generation of harvesters that compress the cotton and build modules on board are increasingly replacing the system of boll buggy and module builder. Although very expensive these new machines are much more economical as they helped to save time, labor, fuel and the amount of equipment needed at harvest. Instead of a harvester and a fleet of cotton boll buggies, tractors and module builders, now just one person on one machine gets the job done. The new picker also harvests a better quality cotton as it leaves more trash on the ground. And cleaner cotton means getting a higher price at the gin.
Dick Ault, genetics professor at Texas Tech University discusses his research in cotton and oilseeds.
The modern mechanical cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry in the United States, but also led to the growth of slavery in the American South and eventually contributed to the outbreak of the American Civil war. Until 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the mechanical cotton gin, the cotton fibre was separated from the seed by hand, a slow and tedious process. A slave needed about ten hours to produce one pound of the fiber. Using a cotton gin, a team of two slaves could produce around fifty pounds of cotton per day. Cotton growing became highly profitable and the production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850. But as the production increased so did the demand for slave labor to grow and harvest the crop. The number of slaves increased from around 700,000 in six slave states in 1790 to around 3.2 million in 15 states by midcentury. By then about two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton was grown by black slave labor from the American South.
In the high cotton season Busters Gin in Ropesville keeps running night and day.
When the cotton gin is ready to process the cotton, cotton modules stored at the edge of the field are loaded onto trucks and transported to the gin.
A cotton module is covered to protect it from rain, snow and wind. For many years, trailers were used to move harvested cotton from the field to the cotton gin. After mechanical harvesters were introduced in the mid-1940s the limited capacity of trailers slowed down the harvest. The expensive harvesters often had to sit idle on the field till the trailers returned from the cotton gin, which also couldn’t expand ginning capacity at the rate of harvesting improvements. Cotton module builders, developed by Texas A&M University and introduced in 1972, solved the logistical bottleneck by allowing cotton to be harvested quickly and compressed into large modules that can be temporarily stored at the edge of the field. When over time cotton harvesters grew from 2-row to 4-row and by now 8-row simultaneous harvesting, the wider headers made it impossible to dump the cotton directly into the module builder. So the boll buggy was introduced, a lot cart that transports harvested cotton between the harvester operating in the field and the module builders at the edge of the field. Today more than 90% of harvested cotton in the USA is compacted with module builders. Since 2008 though a new generation of harvesters that compress the cotton and build modules on board are increasingly replacing the system of boll buggy and module builder. Although very expensive these new machines are much more economical as they helped to save time, labor, fuel and the amount of equipment needed at harvest. Instead of a harvester and a fleet of cotton boll buggys, tractors and module builders, now just one person on one machine gets the job done. The new picker also harvests a better quality cotton as it leaves more trash on the ground. And cleaner cotton means getting a higher price at the gin.
I often felt like being stranded on an alien planet. A scraggy machine land where the skeletons of giant sci-fi insects crawl glacially across a red brown furrowed soil. The insects move is pronounced by the buzz of an electro-motor kicking into action followed by the squeak of a badly greased wheel that gradually moves forward in its path long engraved in the West Texas ground. A subtle motion moves through its mile long spine, while hundreds of tubes swing viciously in the gusting wind spitting water all around and turning the dry soil into a soggy bed, where soon the tiny light green leaves of new cotton plants will break through. With the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer whose water irrigates most of the world’s largest contiguous cotton-producing land around Lubbock water conservation has become an important factor for many farmers of the region. Technologies such as low-energy precision application (LEPA) irrigation were originally developed in the Lubbock area. Instead of shooting the water high in the air as done by traditional center pivot irrigation systems, the water is gently sprayed downward onto the soil and plants. As a result much less water evaporates or is blown off the fields by the wind. Even more efficient are subsurface drip irrigation systems that deliver more precise volumes of water directly to the roots of plants and further reduce evaporation losses. Combined with soil monitor sensors increasingly used by farmers to better schedule irrigations hundreds of thousand liters of water can be saved per acre. Applied more widely across the region, this could eventually slow the Ogallala’s depletion.
A worker fixes the nozzle head of a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler on a cotton farm. Seen from the sky the circles of center pivots – each up to one mile in radius – are the defining feature of the West Texas landscape. Groundwater pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer has turned the area around Lubbock into the world’s largest contiguous cotton-producing land. The first motor-driven irrigation well was drilled about 47 miles north of Lubbock in 1911. It pumped up to 6400 liters a minute and changed the equation for a semi arid region that faced enduring severe drought. Farmers who had always depended on scarce rain suddenly had an seemingly endless resource under their feet. Land values rose immediately, as 88,000 irrigation wells were stuck into the aquifer and the region turned into one of the world’s most productive agricultural farmlands. The party lasted less than a century. Depleted by decades of heavy pumping the Ogallala Aquifer, which waters 27 percent of the United States’ irrigated cropland, rapidly decreased, especially in its southernmost stretch. Thousands of wells went dry across the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) based in Lubbock. The aquifer here gets very little recharge from current rainfall and is already so depleted that many center-pivot sprinklers draw from multiple wells. Wells that once produced 2000 liters per minute are often down to 200 liters per minute. The Ogallala Aquifer across the region has dropped roughly one food or about 1.2 trillion liters per year since 1969. While the Ogallala Aquifer is projected to run out within 50 years across most of its vast area of about 450,000 square kilometers, the region surrounding Lubbock could face complete depletion much earlier. But driving up irrigation efficiency or enforcing caps on groundwater pumping to slow down the aquifer’s depletion is often met with fierce resistance from local farmers. Texas water law assigns groundwater ownership to the landholder. As irrigated farming is much more profitable than dryland, each individual farmer profits from pumping as much water from beneath his land as possible, even if this eventually destroys the syste
Cliff Etheredge had always been a fighter. Years ago he lost his right arm to a cotton harvester, but continued farming. When he realized the wind energy potential of the region around Roscoe, he organized about 400 local landowners and lobbied to establish one of the worlds largest wind projects, which turned the crumbling economy of the dilapidated farm town into a wind energy hotspot. The new industry brought plenty of jobs into town and revitalized the local economy with new restaurants, hotels and shops springing up after years of closures.
Hundreds of large wind turbines scattered the landscape, neatly lined along access-roads, criss crossing cotton fields in all directions. I came here to explore an alternative for farmers with a huge land-base but unreliable income. And Roscoe was the perfect spot. Different from the areas further north, Roscoe has no aquifer providing irrigation water, so farming here was always dependent on rain. With cotton prices down Roscoe, like so many little communities in the countryside, was slowly dying. People moved away, shops went bankrupt, restaurants stood empty and many houses fell apart. When even the Dairy Queen closed the fate of this community of 1300 seemed inevitable. Then Cliff Etheredge, a retired cotton farmer, recognized wind-towers sprouting up in the region and wondered if Roscoe could cash in on the developing West Texas wind boom. He started studying wind energy and took his own wind speed measurements. Cliff realized that a near-constant wind speed of 17 mph, underused transmission lines and wide-open spaces makes the area one of the nation’s wind energy hotspot. But there was one mayor challenge for the development of a large scale wind project: Nearly 400 different landowners controlled the area and without all of them agreeing to lease part of their land to the energy company, the project wouldn’t be viable. Cliff Etheredge knew that he needed a good proposition to convince his neighbors, so he researched the potential profit a wind farm would bring in royalties to each farmer. It turned out that a landowner could earn around 100 Dollar per acre per year in addition to the 30 Dollar per acre profit, that cotton in this area generates on average. And the wind revenue was much more stable, than dry-land cotton farming, where drought and hail are constant threats. When he finally got the last signature he went hunting for investors. Today Roscoe Wind Farm is one of the world's largest capacity wind farms with 634 wind turbines and a total installed capacity of 781.5 MW. The project brought jobs and new opportunities to the once dilapidated town and wind provides a stable income for the regions cotton farmers.
A driver stops his truck on the scale to be weight at Busters Gin in Ropesville, before transporting the bales of ready ginned cotton to a warehouse, where it will be stored till the cotton price is acceptable for the farmers.