Future producers

Published 9:26 pm Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cotton gin: Mike Lee, center, the general manager of the Suffolk Cotton Gin, explains how the cotton gin works to Young Farmers Expo attendees.

Young farmers tour cotton fields, gin

Most residents of Suffolk don’t know what it’s like to grow up without fields of cotton and peanuts nearby.

But that’s exactly the case for residents in many other parts of the state, where the agricultural industry focuses on other crops or on livestock.

“We are very unique in growing cotton and peanuts in this area,” said Chris Simms, the Southeastern District representative for the Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers.

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That’s why the Young Farmers program was in the area this weekend for its annual Summer Expo. About 200 young people ages 18 to 35 descended on Suffolk and Franklin for two days full of activities focused mainly on peanuts and cotton.

“I live in Suffolk,” said Jared Bass, a Lakeland High School student and member of the Future Farmers of America chapter there. “I wanted to find out more about what all these agriculture-related businesses are in the area.”

On Friday, the group toured the Suffolk Cotton Gin and a Suffolk cotton farm, viewed peanut combines at the Amadas facility on Holland Road and toured peanut and cotton research fields at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center farm on Hare Road.

“It’s a chance to get inside and see something you never actually see,” said Ronald Daughtrey, the sponsor of Lakeland’s FFA chapter.

At the Suffolk Cotton Gin, the group got a rare look inside the big, white buildings off U.S. Route 58 west of Holland. General manager Mike Lee explained how the gin operates and wowed the attendees with numbers like the business’s monthly power bill — up to $100,000 a month during the ginning season.

Lee explained that the large cotton modules first get torn apart in a loader machine, then go through a series of mechanics that filters out the impurities. Machines then separate the seeds and pull about half the moisture out of the material. Packed containers of cotton emerge about 25 to 30 minutes after the module entered the building.

The gin runs 23 hours a day during the fall, stopping twice a day for 30 minutes to change shifts. About 30 employees operate the gin during its peak season.

The rest of the year, the core staff of five full-time employees markets their ginning services and the leftover seeds, which are the true bread and butter of the operation. Most of the seeds are used for cattle feed, Lee said.

Lee told the group of young farmers he is confident the gin can handle the increased cotton production this year, which has resulted from an unusually high value of cotton.

“There is a lot of cotton in the fields,” Lee said. “When you start talking about a 50-percent increase, that’s a lot.”

Simms said the tours and other activities were invaluable to the young people.

“It provides a networking opportunity,” he said. “They make those connections they can call on if they need to.”

The young farmers spent Saturday morning in Franklin, observing or participating in contests for awards such as outstanding young agriculturalist and outstanding young farm employee. Saturday afternoon was spent in tours of Felts Packing Company and Wakefield Peanut Company.

For more information on the Young Farmers initiative, visit www.vafarmbureau.org.