Twenty years ago, the market for cotton startled awake like a newborn and hollered. The sound echoed in ripples across the country, making itself heard in places where cotton was but a memory—and where for many years there’d been no reason to give it any thought. And as it rippled through, there were some who heard it and caught it in the air. Which is why, 20 years ago, when the Wall Street Journal came to Jackson County, a reporter found Dennis Haigwood “jury-rigging” a corn planter to plant cotton. “The market is just screaming at us to plant cotton,” Haigwood told the reporter.
Despite the potential for growth the cotton crop seemed to promise—the forecast prices (offset slightly by the more economically savvy skeptics), the bumper stickers proselytizing for the crop, the notion that, for the first time since 1975, there might be a cotton gin in Jackson County—it didn’t quite happen the way that so many hoped. The market, in time, seemed to scream itself hoarse.
But as has always been the case, when the crop failed to meet the forecasts and instead succumbed to the specters of a boom-and-bust cycle, the market rebounded in the way that it does, and the farmers responded in the way that they do: They did what they did to make it work. They took it all in stride. They moved on.
And it’s for this reason farmers are still growing cotton in Jackson County. Not because of some lingering nostalgia-heavy fondness for the flocculent tufts—and not as much as they used to, with 260 acres compared to a high of 1,500 grown on the family farms in 2006—but because they’ve got the best ground to grow cotton on. It’s also why they make such wide use of technology—and why, as we’re chatting on the phone, Derek Haigwood, Dennis’ son, can say exactly where his tractors and combines are, and how fast they’re going and who’s taking them down the field. But ultimately, this, too, will change because that’s the nature of the field. Every moment is subject to change—to the whims of the market, to the influence of technology.
And while the photos that appear in the following pages—taken by Newport native photographer Brittney Turner, who, for nearly two years, has traveled the region and captured the day-to-day operations of modern farming—paint a broad portrait of present-day agriculture, they’re reminders that there’s always movement, always development. In those moments, the simplest processes prove to be the most complex. There’s always room for growth.