Famous Mill Goes Away As King Cotton's Reign Fades
After selling cotton to textile factories for almost 150 years, the S.M. Whitney Co., run by descendants of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, is set to close.
Company president Barry Whitney, whose great grandfather opened the business in 1868, checks his clipboard with a flashlight as his wingtips press into the dirt floor of one of his brick warehouses.
"This cotton here is gone, too. That's sold," he says, referring to the last of his company's cotton stock.
Whitney has just 190 bales of cotton left. At its peak, the company brokered deals for 80,000 bales annually. Whitney says he got a lot of business by talking with farmers.
"I would go call on a farmer, and they would say, 'Oh, he's down the road in such and such field.' So I would run down there, find the farmer, and one thing the farmer really enjoyed doing was taking a visitor and driving him around to see his cotton, his corn, his soybeans or his wheat or whatever," Whitney says.
Those relationships helped Whitney dominate the Augusta cotton market. For a long time, Whitney sold cotton to local merchants. In the 1980s, two-thirds of American cotton got spun into T-shirts and jeans in U.S. factories. According to Whitney, his company used to spin 12.5 million bales in America, and now spins just a little more than 3 million.
Cotton mills have been moving overseas since the 1990s. U.S. cotton is still in demand, but around 2005, growers began cutting back after they noticed that corn and soy fetched a better price, according to economist Gary Adams.
"A lot of that was due to the higher oil prices, the increased use of corn for ethanol and renewable fuels. So that push drove up grain prices. And farmers looked at those competing market signals and decided to go more toward corn and soybean and less toward cotton," Adams says.
Between 2006 and '09, U.S. cotton acreage dropped by 40 percent. That's exactly when Whitney's business dried up.
"The old world of cotton is probably dead," says Darren Hudson, director of the Cotton Economics Research Institute at Texas Tech University.
The old world of cotton is probably dead.
According to Hudson, S.M. Whitney's closing is the symbolic end of an era. He says today's market is all about export sales, not business relationships.
"[Whitney] still could have made that work. It would have been tougher. And that's why a lot of these merchants and co-ops have ... a staff or salesman ... that lives in Beijing, works with the textile mills there," Hudson says.
Augusta, Ga., the home of S.M. Whitney Co., is dotted with cotton museums and restaurants with names like the Cotton Patch and Boll Weevil.
But at Mi Rancho Mexican Restaurant downtown, Augusta's past is harder to notice. Angela Gifford sits near a window drinking with some friends. From her seat she can see the back door to S.M. Whitney's office.
"I've lived here most of my life and didn't even know there was such a thing here," Gifford says.
S.M. Whitney will sell its last bale of cotton next week. But to many, cotton's reign in the South is already ancient history.
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