LA FERIA — As workers did a century ago, members of the Rodriguez family and a crew of friends picked cotton by hand to bring in the first bale in the nation at 2 p.m. Friday at the La Feria Co-op Gin.
This is the third year in a row for the Rodriguez family to take the honor and the sixth time overall for the family to win “first bale.”
“It’s (a measure) of how much we can work and work, season after season, and bring in less cotton this year than ever before,” George Rodriguez said, referring to the worst drought since the 1950s.
It is because of the drought that the cotton had to be hand-picked; the crop was so low to the ground that machines could not be used.
“Because of the shortage of water, a lot of the farmers were prevented from planting,” he said. “We tried it to see if we could get a crop.”
In order to claim the first bale award, friends and relatives had to pick the crop by hand because the yield with a mechanical picker, or combine, would have been too low, George said. The best bolls of cotton grew very close to the ground.
Also, using the harvesting machine, or combine, would have damaged the plants too much and made it impossible to do a second fruitful picking around July 22, he said. But it will be possible to pick the second harvest by machine in late July or early August, the family said.
“You can see where it has been raining; it’s the bottom crop. We had a couple of good rains, five inches, four inches,” George Rodriguez said.
The field where the cotton was planted normally would get two irrigations a season, said Maria L. Rodriguez, George’s wife. But this year there was no irrigation water available at all for that field, she said.
“So it was all hand-picked,” she said.
“It’s the old tradition,” George said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be picked.”
The crew hand-picked the crop beginning late Wednesday, continuing all day Thursday and finishing about noon Friday, Maria said.
“We just need 200 more pounds,” Maria said just after noon in a 14 1/2-acre field at the end of Johnson Lane off Bass Boulevard.
The crew wore an odd collection of large hats and long-sleeved shirts to protect them from the blazing sun.
Workers dragged “tow sacks” behind them, bending low to pluck the fluffy cotton from the plants, hoping to avoid painful jabs from the sharp leaves.
The volunteer crew of family and friends had to bend down to the level of their shoes to scoop up the cotton.
“And my son is six feet, three inches tall,” Maria said of George Rodriguez Jr., one of the crew.
Because of the drought, the bale was “weighed in” and recorded at the gin about a week later than last year, said Sarah Trolinger, program director for the Harlingen Cotton Committee, a division of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce.
The bale weighed 1,940 pounds, but after processing will likely be about 500 to 600 pounds, George said.
However, the bale won’t be processed until about July 22, gin manager Ed Landry said. That’s because the gin won’t go into production until then and arrangements to use electricity can’t be made for just one day, he said.
The Rodriguez family will claim a certificate and a $3,000 check for the first bale after it is ginned and sold to the Harlingen Cotton Committee, Trolinger said.
The bale will then be auctioned off, usually yielding about $5,000, which will be matched by Texas State Technical College-Harlingen, so that $10,000 will be available for scholarships to TSTC students, Trolinger said.
This year, the Harlingen Cotton Committee is celebrating its 60th anniversary, she said.
Landry said the earliest a first bale was recorded was May 25, 1953.
At 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 8, the Harlingen Cotton Committee will hold the auction at the Harlingen Community Center, Trolinger said.
“We’re excited, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will be there,” Trolinger said. “It’s the first time we’ve had a commissioner there. It’s because it’s the 60th anniversary.”
The picking crew was made up of friends and relatives such as Olivia Garcia, who has a doctorate in mathematics and husband Marcos; retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Roman P. Rodriguez and two Marine Corps JROTC cadets from McAllen Memorial High School; Mary Bowman; their son George Rodriguez Jr., who is a certified welder; Tony “The Boss” Rodriguez; Lorenzo Rodriguez; Felipa Cruz, a registered nurse; Cleo Rodriguez, a mechanic; “Wicho” Rodriguez, a printer and trucker; Minga Flores, a home health worker and his mother, Eva Rodriguez, George said.
“We’re all a family, trying to make the goal of 2,000 pounds,” George said.
Humberto Zamora donated the use of the field and the seed was donated by Daniel Gonzalez, of Delta Pine, Edinburg, a division of Monsanto, George and Maria said.
In past years, the First Bale celebration has been held at the Port of Harlingen or the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce office, Trolinger said.
Sometimes cotton growers have delivered “first bales” from other Cotton Belt states such as Mississippi. But in recent years, all of the winners have been from fields close to Harlingen, Trolinger said. Brady Taubert is the chairman of the Harlingen Cotton Committee, she said.