Cotton gins are a major business in most of their rural communities. They employ dozens of fulltime and seasonal workers, and they put money into the local economy in many other ways. Often, their contributions go above and beyond those.
Sam E. Angel II, the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association for 2021-22, is board chair for the Chicot Memorial Medical Center in Lake Village, Ark., and fire chief for the Lake Village Fire Department.
For Angel, who manages the historic Epstein Gin in Lake Village and is also chairman of the board of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture and a member of the Lake Village City Council (for the past 18 years) it’s what you do to give back to your community. (He also served in the Arkansas General Assembly before he was term-limited in 2000.)
At a time when hospitals in rural areas and their communities are struggling, Angel believes it is imperative that local leaders step up. “The pandemic has proven once again how important our local hospitals are to their communities,” he said.
Sam E. Angel II serves as board chair of Chicot Memorial Medical Center, one of a number of rural hospitals providing frontline care to area residents during a pandemic. (Courtesy Sammy Angel)
His experience with the local hospital also helped when the coronavirus began to spread in southeast Arkansas.
“We had some warning since the first case of Covid-19 in Arkansas was only two counties away from us in early March,” he said. “We watched it spread and began preparing. We educated our employees on Covid-19 and what safeguards needed to be taken to stay safe and healthy.”
The Epstein Gin also began acquiring PPE or personal protective equipment that would be needed for the 2020 ginning season. “We had no issues keeping a full crew throughout the ginning season due to the pandemic,” he said. “In fact, we did not have a positive Covid-19 case during the ginning season.”
Although the nature of farming in the Cotton Belt allows growers and their workers to practice social distancing with ease, the pandemic could have been problematic for ginners and textile mill workers,
The closings of many retail outlets caused a backup in the supply chain that impacted cotton prices until the very end of the harvest season when futures finally began to recover on the International Commodity Exchange.
Those fluctuating prices and labor are two of the biggest challenges ginners face, according to Angel. “I believe that commodity prices are the driving force year in and year out. Following prices would be labor; being a seasonal industry labor is always an issue not only in fiber but also in grain.”
Founded in the late 1800s by Angel’s great-grandfather, Epstein Gin has a rich history and has survived events such as the 1927 flood and the Depression. Angel was asked how that tradition helped the gin get through 2020.
“I would have to say being a small operation with 60% of our crew being full time employees of the company makes things easier,” he said. “Everyone watches out for each other and if there is a problem it is caught early and resolved. Our maintenance for the following year starts the day the last bale is ginned. This certainly helps for a trouble-free season.
Although nearby cotton futures had risen into the upper 70-cent range as 2020 ended, Angel says prices need to move higher to help growers and ginners.
Angel is also chief of the Lake Village, Ark., Fire Department. Many ginners serve similar roles in their local communities, he said. He will also become president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association during the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, Feb. 26-27. (Courtesy Sammy Angel)
“I do believe the increase in prices will maintain the 2020 acres bases,” he noted. “From there it will depend on how high the prices go. There are those farmers that have cotton equipment. For them it will be easy to increase acres, but the price will dictate how many others choose cotton.”
At this point Angel said he doesn’t plan any major changes at Epstein Gin. “If we see an increase in cotton acres, we may take another look at it.”
The SCGA is addressing other issues confronting ginners, such as the smaller seed size in some of the newer cotton varieties.
“We have discussed the issues with the seed breeders,” he said. “It is a trait that can, and, I believe, will be resolved without impacting lint production. It will take some time, but I feel like we will see the seed size return.”
Angel said he also hopes the SCGA can address issues with the H-2A Visa program. “I would also like to work on ways to decrease bale wrap in lint samples, educating producers on moisture levels at harvesting and, finally, safety in the gin. The SGCA has made great strides in safety but there is always room for safety improvements.”