The roundabout way that Gregg Sain became a successful ginner is a testament to a man remaining open to opportunities, robust on-the-job education, dogged determination and the fostering of community relationships. And that hard-earned success was largely set in motion after Sain slipped a ring on his bride’s finger.
The 2015 SCGA Ginner of the Year is head of gins in both northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel.
Sain was born and raised in Rector, Ark. “My mother’s family was in Rector her whole life. My father moved here in 1954. I know that because this year, they’re celebrating 60 years of the (Sain) car dealership being open — my sister, Gail Ford, and her husband, Danny, own that now.”
Another major player in Sain’s story is James W. Graves, the father of his wife, Ginger. Graves passed away unexpectedly in 1994. “He bought his first gin in 1952 at the age of 22. He operated the Leonard Gin Company in a small community a few miles from here.”
When the Leonard gin burned in 1974, Graves made different deals with other gins to insure his customers’ cotton was ginned. That eventually led to a merge with several gins.
Graves “didn’t really get back into the ginning business solo until 1981,” Sain says. “At that time, he bought Jonesway Gin in Kennett, Mo. — an old gin that had been there since, I’d say, the 1930s. He made that deal, along with Lynn Poe, and they operated that gin until 11 years ago. In 2003, we bought out Mr. Poe when he was ready to retire.”
The Kennett facility is where Sain works every day of the ginning year.
The second gin — Graves Gin at Hargrave Corner, just north of Rector — was once owned by brothers Bill and Ralph Hayes. Around 1989, Graves formed a partnership with the Hayeses. With Ralph ready to retire in 2001, “We bought their half of the business.”
Since then, Graves’ three daughters — Pam Bronson of Memphis, Teresa Frankel of Rector, and Ginger —have owned the two gins. “We run them basically as one operation. We make the cotton work out so the ginning at both locations ends on the same day.”
Sain’s transition to becoming a ginner was hardly a straight, easy shot to the top.
“Ginger and I attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. We got married in 1986, and I got a degree in accounting in 1987. I was about to take the CPA exam when her father called and said, ‘Hey, I really need someone to come up here and manage the grain elevator in Rector.’”
Sain had grown up around farming, but says, “I’d never been in it. I was kind of reluctant because I just didn’t know enough. He said, ‘Just come up and talk to me.’ So, I drove up and he said, ‘Try it and if it doesn’t work out you can always go take the CPA exam.’
“That’s how I ended up working for Ginger’s father in February 1988.”
He paid close attention to the business, soaked up the ins and outs. With Graves’ death in 1994, he says, “We were kind of thrown in with his partners. I’m not sure what they thought about that — going from James W. Graves as a partner to having his three daughters. But it has worked out so well. We’re still very good friends with all of them, and that’s a rarity. Those are good men.”
Ginger picks up the narrative: “When Daddy suddenly passed away, none of us girls knew much about the business. I used to check crops with him, but didn’t know about the business.
“At 30 years of age, Gregg was thrown into this, and we depended on him to keep it going. It turned out that those six years of Gregg working with Daddy was a huge deal — and he’d been paying attention. I’m very proud of him — he’s been fearless. One of the reasons he’s been successful at this is his willingness to do anything the business requires: he’ll shovel, load trucks, drive trucks, anything.”
Sain, shrugs and smiles. “I like driving trucks during fertilizer season. It’s a great way to see crops and how things are progressing.”
Bales ginned down
“We ginned about 40,000 bales in 2014,” he says. “That’s off a bit from our average of around 44,000 bales. Given the nature of the area and the other gins, I’m not terribly dissatisfied with that. We’re hanging in there. Many cotton gins are down 25 percent to 75 percent in bales ginned.
“I’ve been in this business since 1988, and this is the most perilous time for cotton that I’ve seen. We’re in danger of losing cotton acres and the gins that service them. We’re on the verge of people leaving cotton and not coming back. We’ve got to have prices come up so farmers can turn a profit.
“We’ve been losing cotton gins for years, but not at the current pace. There are six gins within 50 miles of here that may close this year. And they’re gins that just finished the 2014 ginning season. It’s sad but there’s very little value in them at the moment. You’re not going to find a group of farmers getting together to buy a gin — they’ve got too much on their collective plate to do that.”
The area is prime for cotton, Sain says. “We have some great land, and some of the greatest producers in the country. They can harvest 1,600- and 1,700-pound cotton. The problem is averaging that amount — you can have a field that makes 1,600 pounds and right down the road will be a field that does only 1,000 pounds.
“I believe the average for 2014 will be about 1,100 pounds. Not long ago, I’d have done backflips with that yield. But when you figure that you’re not going to net but 67 or 68 cents on the cotton, it makes money tight.”
Last spring, there was actually a chance to price cotton at a higher price. But even then, “things just wouldn’t pencil out at 81 or 82 cents,” he says. “Producers waited, thinking the price would rise to 87 or 90 cents — but it never happened.”
Are there differences between ginning in Arkansas and Missouri?
“We really don’t see any borderline,” says Sain. “To me, the Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri. It seems that’s where the Delta begins. There is some great land in the Bootheel — and cotton farming starts around Sikeston. There are yields coming out of this area that I’d put against any in the Mid-South.
“We actually pull a lot more cotton out of Arkansas that’s ginned in Kennett than the other way around. I believe Dunklin County, Mo., has lost more cotton acres than Clay County, Ark. There’s ground in Dunklin County that was in cotton for 100 years and is planted in wheat right now.”
The gin in Kennett is still running a Double Eagle 141 with an old Murray press. “We’re very fortunate to have been able to maintain and keep the gin up. We’re proud of that gin — we’ve got it to where it averaged 16 bales an hour this year on a 24-hour shift.”
The Hargrave Corner gin had a new Lummus press installed in 2012. “That’s when we really picked up the pace. We’re running three 141s and are able to gin about 32 to 33 bales per hour. That’s up from 17 to 18 bales.”
Between the two gins, “We’re able to get through the cotton in about 40 to 50 days. That’s a reasonable ginning season and allows our customers to get their cotton ginned and get paid in a timely manner.”
A massive cottonseed shed was just built at the Arkansas facility. “They finished work on it Nov. 10,” he says. “The crop was late enough that we were able to use the seed house.
“We wanted to keep from having to move the seed in October and November. It’s kind of like the corn and rice markets — nowadays, it’s much easier to have some grain bins so you aren’t tied to the local river market. That allows you to let the pressure of harvest die down.”
Praise for labor force
Sain gives major praise to the gins’ labor force. “Our employees have a minimum of five years’ experience, which is very important. Some guys have been with us over 20 years. There’s also a crew that comes in out of Texas for two or three months. It’s so nice to have an experienced crew — everyone knows their job the first day.”
Dennis Adams manages the gin at Hargrave Corner. “He’s top-notch, and has been in the ginning business his entire life. After being hired, he tweaked things and we immediately had an extra 5,000-plus bales. He has a relationship with farmers that allows them to trust what he says.”
Curtis Kemp — “a great ginner” — is ginner at the Kennett gin. Bruce Benson is “a valuable employee who has been with us for over 20 years. Barbi Anderson is “an awesome office manager — she floats between the gins and is a tremendous asset to both. Her husband, Scott, is also a ginner at Kennett. Ginner Daniel Cabrera and Ami and Scott Stirnaman work at the Arkansas gin and do a great job.”
As for family, “Our daughter, Seanne, recently married Tyler and is a teacher and high school counselor in northwest Arkansas. Our son, Chase, an Arkansas State University graduate, has worked with me since he was 19. He got married a year ago to Bridgette, a teacher at Rector. Chase is responsible for pulling soil samples in our fertilizer division for grid sampling. He is also our C.P.S. representative and makes seed recommendations for farmers. We’re very proud of them both.”
It’s very interesting, Sain says, that there’s handwringing in some quarters about the U.S. economy being negatively impacted by the sharp drop in the price of crude oil.
“My whole life, high crude oil prices have really hurt rural areas and working people. How can it hurt if folks who were once paying $4 or $5 per gallon are now paying $2.25? That’s money in everyone’s pockets, and it helps rural economies.”
The low price of crude is bittersweet for the cotton sector, he says. “It’s not a complete positive for the cotton industry because it’s making synthetic fibers much cheaper. Here we are at 60-cent cotton and still we’re having trouble competing with synthetic fibers.
“Do we need to find a new spin on cotton to the American public? Folks need to appreciate the necessity of wearing 100 percent cotton. Maybe we need to educate the public to the fact that cotton is renewable, that it’s friendly to the environment. And contrast that with the black goo that synthetic fibers are made from. We need something striking that will make consumers look at a shirt tag and make sure it’s cotton.”
One of the things in which Sain’s customers take comfort is the good relationship the gins have with Cargill. “We sell all our cotton to Cargill and go to their warehouses in Memphis.
“There have been some trying times in the cotton industry. In 2008 and 2009, producers will remember cotton rallied higher than $1.50. Some merchants were unable to meet the contracts — but that wasn’t the case with Cargill. They paid every contract and, believe me, our customers were paying attention.”
What might maintain cotton acres in the area?
“What might help would be lowering the price of planting seed. I wish the big seed companies would consider that cotton isn’t 90 cents a pound, but 60 cents, and maybe knock $100 off a bag of seed. Maybe it’d be worth it to not charge $600 a bag — maybe it might provide farmers an incentive to stay in cotton.’”