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January 24, 2024
Some people go to work for eight or nine hours a day, come home and never think about what they do at the office or store or manufacturing plant.
Tom Calloway isn’t like that. About the only time it seems he isn’t thinking about cotton ginning or how to improve the ginning process is when he’s with his family or getting to hold a new granddaughter as he did late in 2023.
That lifelong desire to improve the ginning process and his dedication to advancing the cotton industry led the Southern Cotton Ginners Association to name Calloway, manager of the Rayville Producers Gin in Rayville, La., as its 2024 Ginner of the Year.
Tim Price, executive vice president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, which is based in Memphis, Tenn., said he considers Calloway to be a “Ginners Ginner.”
“When Tom became president of our Association, he said he wanted to attend as many district meetings as he could,” said Price. “And he didn’t just attend the meetings – he also went out and visited the local gins, to learn more about how they operated.”
“I missed one – I had a funeral to attend,” said Calloway. “But I went to all the rest. A lot of these guys we only see at a meeting or at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show. I wanted to see what they were like around their own gins.”
Calloway said the visits were “a good experience. A lot of things are different, but it’s often different because of the geography. I went to a gin in Adobe Walls, Texas, which is up past Amarillo, and they had a big tent around the press. I asked what that was all about? They said it gets cold, and they have to have heaters so the straps will run in the strap machine.
“We deal with mud and water and wet seasons; they deal with freezing cold. But you get to see other gins in operation and which guys are really interested in ginning. You can walk in a man’s gin and tell what he cares about because it will be in tip top-shape. You can have a gin that was built in the 1970s. but it’s kept up immaculately and can still do the job.”
The 2024 Ginner of the Year can’t remember when he wasn’t around a cotton gin. His father and grandfather owned a gin (in Bosco, La.,) when Tom was growing up. “My older brother, Mike, was managing the gin when I came along.”
“When I was in high school, my Dad had a friend named Gilbert Gomez who would bring four or five guys up from the Rio Grande Valley to work in the gin,” he said. “When things slowed and farmers started scrapping, the crew would leave, and me and my younger brother, Lee, would go in and help gin that cotton.”
He continued to do more at the gin and on the family farm, and the last two or three years before he graduated from Northeast Louisiana University (now Louisiana University at Monroe) he took the fall off to work.
“I ran the pickers, but when they had trouble at the gin, my older brother, Mike, would come get me and tell me to go help while he drove the picker,” he noted. “I started running the gin as the ginner in 1985, and continued until I ginned its last bale of cotton at the end of 1989. My older brother, Mike, is the one who gave me my shot at becoming a ginner.”
Just as the gin was shutting down, Calloway received a call from Jones Producers Gin in Jones, La., asking him to interview for the job of gin manager.
“They had nine members on their board, and all nine of them interviewed me. When I got home, I told my wife, Kim, ‘I don’t think I impressed them very much.’ But they called me back for a second interview. Then, they talked for a minute or two and offered me the job.”
That began a lifelong quest for Calloway. “I took the job because I liked ginning. In fact, I loved it. I’m not saying I’m a better ginner than a lot of people; there may have been times when I worked at it a little harder. I never had any aspirations of being the biggest ginner, but I did want to be one of the best.
“So I asked a lot of questions. I’d go to other gins to see what they were doing, and I listened and I learned.”
Calloway misses those days. “We had a good infrastructure, a lot of gins, a big gin supply house, and we had some guys who had been in ginning all their lives, older guys who were mentors to me and others. But I still like the business even with the newfangled problems we have today.”
Those can range from acreage fluctuations due to more favorable prices for corn to labor and seed marketing issues to weather extremes that can go from excessive rains to drought conditions.
“In 2018, it got so wet here toward the end of the season we were having to use a bulldozer to pull a module truck in and out of the field,” he said. “This year (2023) was one of the driest. We’ve been in a drought since the summer.
“It’s funny you get somebody new in a season like this year, and they say ‘Boy, Tom really taught me how to run that gin.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, everything was perfect, the cotton was perfect.’ You go through years like when Katrina or Gustav hit, and we went from ginning 600 bales to 200 bales a day. When you get through that, you can call yourself a ginner.”
Calloway finished 16 years at Rayville Producers in 2023. Prior to 2017, Rayville was ginning 25,000 to 50,000 bales a year, depending on how many acres farmers switched to cotton after they learned in 2008 and 2009 they could produce Midwest corn yields in Louisiana.
“There wasn’t a lot of improvements going on,” he said. “When 2017 came around, cotton prices were rising, and I made some improvements. We did close to 100,000 bales. In 2018, I did a few more, and we ginned 90,000 bales. When 2019 came along, we went to 60,000 acres of cotton. I put in another gin stand, and we did 128,000 bales that year.”
Since then, he’s made additional changes to make the gin run more efficiently even if lower acreage or drought reduces the volume of cotton as it did in 2023. Those have included a new tramper upgrade on its 1995 Continental Press so it could handle 75 to 78 bales an hour. All were paid for within a year.
“Producers is a co-op so it only takes a $10 membership to gin here,” he noted. “So I’m not going to do improvements if I don’t think I can pay for it in that given season or before we start the season.
Calloway tells about a $1.9 million loan for new equipment he paid off in three months. “My banker called me and asked me how I paid off that loan so quickly,” he said. “I told him I had a marijuana patch out behind the gin.
“The worst thing you can have today – and there’s some out there and I feel for them – is a big debt load and no cotton. I’ve ran four gins since Bosco, and I’ve learned so much from each one, and it’s helped mold me into the ginner I am today.”
After 2022 proved to be a good year, Calloway installed a new bagger to help the gin cope with the years when it has more cotton acres. The problem was not enough labor to keep a manual bagger running.
“For several years, I didn’t do it because I was trying to provide jobs for local people. It wasn’t a hard job, but it was steady, and the people I had just wouldn’t stay. We run 70 to 75 bales per hour with good cotton, and now the only time someone touches it is when something goes wrong or you have to reload the bags.
“Another problem is keeping key people employed in the off-season,” he noted. “We used to have people who would work on the farm, then come to the gin during harvest. But the farms have cut down on labor costs or the number of employees due to larger equipment. We’re all dealing with higher costs and more regulations.”
With December 2024 cotton trading at 77 cents per pound when Calloway was interviewed in mid-December, he thinks cotton acres could be down in his area this spring. It could be late March before farmers know how much corn and cotton they will plant.
“There a lot of good people in this industry,” he said. “I have had so many people who have helped me in my career the list is too long to name them. It’s not really fair to these guys to stop growing cotton, because it’s like being a ginner, once cotton gets in your blood it’s hard to get it out.
Calloway says he’s been blessed with a “great family, a loving wife of 41 years, Kim, and three great kids. Now they’re married, they have families of their own, and I have seven wonderful grandchildren.
“I was told by a wise man that if I loved my job, I wouldn’t work a day. He was right. I love cotton ginning.”
Read more about:Awards
Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.
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