Historically Speaking: Cotton coming to Kansas

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
The "cotton blockade" in Houston, Texas around 1909.

This crop is associated with the U.S. South, but in 1995 that changed.

That year a farm bill was passed which encouraged the farming of cotton in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma by subsidizing the crop.

In 1995, farmers planted 3,200 acres, which produced 4,500 bales. By 2019, there were over 400 producers of the crop in our State.

In 2020, farmers grew 195,000 acres of the crop, when Kansas showed an increase, while the 16 other cotton producing states experienced a downward trend.

However, cotton made its debut in Kansas well before 1995. Growers brought the crop to Kansas in the late 1800's where it remained popular through the turn of the century.

In the 1980s, cotton came back briefly and was grown in Cowley and Sterling Counties. Cotton grown in Cowley County was taken to Oklahoma to be ginned.

Cotton is a natural match for Kansas growing conditions. It is hardy, standing up well to drought and hot weather. Cotton only uses 50% to 60% of the water needed to grow corn.

Cotton does has its drawbacks. It requires extensive management to protect it from weeds and insects. It must be fertilized, meaning it has to be sprayed on an regular basis. Cotton is also easily injured by unwanted herbicides "drifting" onto it.

Furthermore, the equipment used to strip, or harvest the crop is expensive. Cotton is planted in the spring and producers harvest it in the fall.

Seeds and debris must be removed after harvest by using a cotton gin, which is piece of expensive and specialized equipment requiring its own building. The material removed from the cotton doesn't go to waste. The seeds produce oil and can used as animal feed. The rest of the contaminants can be recycled as compost.

Eli Whitney revolutionized the cotton industry with his patent of the cotton gin in 1792. The gin enabled producers to quickly clean large amounts of cotton.

However, this invention had a huge downside. The cotton harvest was a slow very labor intensive process performed by African slaves. With a way to quickly process cotton, more slaves were needed to harvest, which caused a dramatic rise in the demand for slave labor.

This prolonged the appalling use of this compulsory workforce throughout the southern U.S. until the American Civil War.

Today, machinery has replaced harvesting cotton by hand.