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During his career in ginning and farming Harry Flowers has been in the forefront of adapting new technologies and innovative practices
<p> <em>During his career in ginning and farming, Harry Flowers has been in the forefront of adapting new technologies and innovative practices</em></p>

Harry Flowers: Family farm tradition spanning generations

In the decades since he first started working the graveyard shift at the gin for his uncle Roy Flowers, Harry Flowers has been a participant in an evolution in farming and ginning &mdash; from the first early-day mechanical cotton pickers to today&rsquo;s on-board module machines, from a 1950s gin that creaked out 4 bales per hour to a modern plant that can whiz through 1,000 bales in a day.

On a sunny mid-November afternoon, the Mattson Gin is in the final two days of ginning the 2012 crop of 50,000 bales — the second largest number ever. Harry Flowers is pleased that the gin plant has completed the season without a hitch, that the cotton crop was “our best ever,” and that the gin crew added another year of safe operation to their longtime excellent record.

In the decades since he first started working the graveyard shift at the gin for his uncle Roy Flowers, he’s been a participant in an evolution in farming and ginning — from the first early-day mechanical cotton pickers to today’s on-board module machines, from a 1950s gin that creaked out 4 bales per hour to a modern plant that can whiz through 1,000 bales in a day.

For his contributions to the cotton and ginning industries during his career, he has been chosen as the Southern Cotton Ginners Association Ginner of the Year, and was honored at the group’s annual awards banquet held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show.

“During his career in ginning and farming, Harry has been in the forefront of adapting new technologies and innovative practices,” says Tim Price, SCGA executive vice president. “He and his gin management team have continually sought ways to enhance the safety of their operation.”

It is of the gin’s safety achievements that he is particularly proud. He remembers all too well the long-ago accident that could have been fatal for his brother, Dick.

“In about 1973, sometime around 2:00 in the morning, I got a call that Dick had been caught in the rollers at our Robinsonville, Miss., gin. He probably would live, I was told, but could lose an arm. Thankfully, he lived, and he didn’t lose his arm. But he had to go through painful skin grafts and a long recovery, and he bears the scars to this day.”

In the years that followed, he says, “We made safety our No. 1 concern. And in that same era, manufacturers began focusing on ways to make gin equipment safer, with additional emphasis on guards and other devices to reduce the potential for accidents.

“Anything that makes our operation safer, we’ve done it,” Harry says. “I don’t want to ever know that one of our employees has been hurt because we didn’t do everything possible to provide a safe workplace.”

He has praise for the SCGA’s safety programs for gins. “They have a wide range of videos, posters, and training materials for employees and managers to create an awareness that safety is an every day, every hour necessity. Larry Davis, SCGA safety director, has done a first class job of assisting gins with their safety programs and with a yearly awards program that recognizes gins for their outstanding safety work.

“We have weekly safety meetings for all our personnel. We’re very proud of our safety record and we want to do everything possible to maintain that record and insure that none of them is hurt on the job.

“When we shut down at the end of the season, we begin a systematic program of going through the gin to inspect all the equipment, to see what needs repairing or replacing, and getting everything in tip-top shape and in the best possible operating condition for the next year.”

The 2012 ginning season started September 12 and finished November 15, Harry says. “It was one of the best seasons ever, due in large part, I think, to the more efficient harvesting with round module pickers and the handling of those modules. It was our second biggest ginning year ever; the record was in 2006, when we ginned 53,000 bales.

“We operate six days a week, with three 8-hour shifts, and we shut down for Sunday. I’m just not comfortable with a round-the-clock 7-day operation — I think it just increases the odds of an accident. I’d rather shut down and give our people some time to rest and recharge. I think this helps us to maintain a safer working environment.”

“We may be one of the few gins that operates entirely with local labor. We’re fortunate to be able to get good people in this area, many of whom have been with us for years.

“We have 12-15 employees in the gin, plus a manager for each shift crew. Steve Logan, our main manager, has been with us 30 years, and Todd Logan has been here for 10 years. Our newest manager, Patrick Williams, has been with us two years.” All hauling of cotton and cotton seed is by custom operators.

Gin built in 1950s

“The gin was built in the 1950s and was originally two gins, each running about 4 bales per hour,” Harry says. “It was owned by my uncle, Roy Flowers, who came to this area in 1910.

“When I started working at the gin, Uncle Roy would stay in the office until midnight. I’d come on duty at 10 p.m., work until 7:00 the next morning, then pull cotton trailers to the field. I’d go home and sleep until 1 p.m., then go to the field where they were picking, stay there until they quit, then go home for some dinner and a bit of rest before going back to the gin at 10 p.m. The gin manager had a cot at the gin and would sleep there.”

In 1970, the two old gins were taken out and a single modern gin installed.

“At that time, Uncle Roy, who was near 90 years old, gave me a half interest in the gin. My brothers, Richard (Dick) and Taylor Graydon (Sonny) had gins at Dublin and Robinsonville, but over the years those were shut down and they became owners with me in this gin. We all farm separately, but we share ownership of the gin.

“We’ve continually upgraded and improved it, and we now have a modern facility than can turn out about 1,000 bales per day. When it’s running well, we can do 60 bales an hour.

“We have three Lummus gin stands and Stover equipment for unwrapping and handling round modules. We felt the Stover equipment was the strongest and best, and we’ve had no problems in handling the round modules.

“Since 1997, we’ve ginned over half a million bales, and over the lifetime of the gin at least 1 million. We ginned a bit over 50,000 bales in 2012, with 75 percent to 80 percent being from round modules. About 85 percent of the cotton we gin is from Flowers family farms.

“We have two John Deere round module pickers and rent a third, and one of our customers also has one. The rest of the cotton we gin is from conventional modules. I don’t foresee conventional modules going away anytime soon, because some of our customers can’t justify the cost of the new pickers.

“We were concerned at first about the higher cost of wrapping for the modules and the equipment to unwrap and handle them at the gin.  But everything has worked out, and we really like the round modules. Handling in the field is much more efficient and they store well.

“The Deere pickers are very efficient — you never have to stop. We can easily pick 60 acres to 70 acres per day. A major efficiency/cost savings is in not having tractors tied up with boll buggies and other operations; they’re freed up for stalk cutting and other work. And transporting the pickers and support equipment from one area to another is much easier.”

On his farming operation, acreage in 2012 was split about 50/50 cotton and grains, Harry says, “But unless there is a significant change in the grains/cotton price relationship, I look for a dramatic downturn in cotton acres in 2013. We could be looking at a 50 percent decline in the number of bales we gin this year.”

About 70 percent of their land is classified as Cotton 1 or Cotton 2 soils, he says, and they try not to put cotton on their heavy land.

“We soil test all our land on a rotating basis every three years. The acres that come out of cotton on our better land this year will probably go into corn. 2012 was also the best-yielding cotton year ever on our farm, with an average of 1,325 pounds. I think the increases we’ve seen in recent years have been due to a number of factors — the excellent varieties available to growers, our doing a better job of irrigation, more effective defoliants, and better, more efficient equipment.

“I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some of the major evolutions in cotton production and ginning — from cotton trailers to module builders to the new module builder pickers. In the early days of module builders, I think we were the first in this area to actually put cotton modules on the ground instead of on pallets. It happened because we had a good cotton year and a long harvest, and we ran out of pallets for the modules.

“I asked Joe McCann, who was a cotton gin equipment salesman, if we could put them on the ground, and he said yes. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘but then can we get them off the ground?’ I telephoned Barry Reynolds out in Texas — he developed the module retriever — and he said he had a relift machine down in Louisiana that he would send to us, along with two men to show us how to use it. If we liked it, he said, it was $25,000, and if we didn’t, we could send it back. It worked fine, and we kept it.

Increased gin yard

“Our next problem was storage. We didn’t have a large enough gin yard to hold as many modules as needed to keep the gin operating. So, we increased our gin yard area; now we have two big yards that are adequate to handle the inventory needed to keep the gin running. We could now store probably 700 modules on our gin yards.”

Over the years, Harry says, “We’ve had a continual program of landforming on our farm, and probably 95 percent of our land has now been put to grade. About 85 percent of the land is irrigated, mostly furrow, and the landforming has allowed us to handle and use water more efficiently.”

With the transition to grains in recent years, they have installed storage bins with a total capacity of 315,000 bushels.

“With the efficiency of modern combines, trying to move corn to an elevator, where there are often long lines, is just too time-consuming,” he says. “These bins allow us to harvest and market our corn more efficiently.”

Although cotton acreage will be reduced on their farm this year, with the expectation of a much smaller crop nationally, Harry says it’s important that cotton maintain a production level sufficient to support the industry infrastructure.

“We don’t need to lose that,” he says. “A lot of gins have closed over the years, and we need to try and keep an adequate ginning infrastructure so we can handle the volume when we work through the current surplus and cotton demand picks up again.”

When he first started farming, he says, “Cotton was 24 cents to 26 cents a pound. The next year, it went to 28 cents, then 30 cents, then 32 cents. We thought 32 cents was just great, so we booked a lot of acreage — and cotton went to $1. That was a lesson learned, about selling too soon.”

Harry was born and grew up here in this small community and has never moved. “My mother, Mary Helen Eggleston, was born here in 1910 and lived in the same place her entire life,” he says. “My father, Taylor Graydon Flowers, grew up in the Cockrun community near Olive Branch, Miss., and came here following his graduation from the University of Mississippi.

“After I got my business/accounting degree at Ole Miss, I spent a year on active duty with the Mississippi Air National Guard, training in California as a navigator. I actually thought about living in California, but my father had some health problems and asked me to come back and take over the farm. It has been a great life and I’ve never regretted a minute of it.

“Counting my part-time work on the farm in my growing-up years, I’ve been involved in our family’s farming operations for 55 years, and have been actively farming on my own for 44 years.

“In my ginning career, I’ve been fortunate to have been guided by our gin managers and programs and training made available through the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, the National Cotton Ginners Association, and the USDA Cotton Ginning Laboratory at Stoneville. It has been a continual learning experience, and I’m always interested in what’s new and improved in the industry.”

Now, Harry and his brothers have sons or grandsons who are active in their farming operations, continuing the long family tradition. Harry’s sons, Scott and Graydon, farm with him; Dick’s sons, Bowen and Mattson farm with him; and Sonny’s grandson, Taylor, farms in his operation.

Harry and his wife, the former Lassie Cooke, have four children, Charles, Amelia, Scott, and Graydon, and six grandchildren, Allie Harris, Gray, Gaines, Jonathan, Anna, and Mattson, with another due to arrive in June.

In addition to his farm/gin business interests, he is a board member of Clarksdale First National Bank, and has served on the board of the former United South Bank and the Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center, as treasurer of St. George Episcopal Church. He has served as a delegate to the National Cotton Council and as an alternate Cotton Board delegate, was on the board of the Staple Cotton cooperative for 20 years, and was a Delta Council vice president and director.

In 1998, he was named winner of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundations High Cotton Award for the Mid-South states, in recognition of his environmental stewardship.

“I’ve been going to the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show since the 1970s,” he says, “and I’m always impressed by the outstanding show that our association puts together each year. It’s a great opportunity to learn what’s new in the ag industry.”

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