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SWFP-SHELLEY-HUGULEY-19-COTTON-SUNSET.jpg Shelley E. Huguley

A student's documentary spotlights Texas cotton, struggles producers face

"It's a hard decision. Do you keep going, thinking it's got to turn around or do you get out before you lose everything?"

Growing up on a cotton farm near Cotton Center, Texas, it was only natural Abbie Burnett would choose cotton production on the Texas Plains for her college course documentary, Texas Snow. While the video is visual evidence of the magnitude of cotton production on the Texas Plains, it also exposes the heart, along with the ache, many in agriculture face today.

The documentary opens with a bird’s-eye view of cotton fields and Abbie’s father, Kyle Burnett, speaking in the background about his 2018 cotton crop. “We like to say there's nothing wetter than rain," he says. "People don't maybe realize that just one rain this summer, maybe two rains, was worth half a million dollars to us.”

After a comment or two about cotton production in Texas, Kyle begins to explain, humbly, the state of his farming operation.  “It's taken a lifetime to acquire a fair retirement that we've probably lost in the last six years. And we don't know... We doubt we'll ever get that back.”

The nearly 11-minute video then transitions to candid interviews with area producers Gerry Norrell of Floydada and his son-in-law, Sean Ables, of Idalou.

“It's pretty tough to take when you put every dollar into it and then you lose it there at the end,” Norrell says in the film. “You just grin and bear it and go on to the next year is about all you can do.”

“One thing you just have to know is you can only control what you can control,” Ables says. “I mean, so much of this is just up to the weather and you kind of really have to have faith to do this.”

Production

Abbie produced and directed the documentary in 2018, during her last semester at Texas Tech University, Lubbock. It was the final project for her “EMC 4380 Features and Documentaries” course.

“2014 and then 2017 and 2018 were terrible years on the farm. And growing up, not seeing my dad for two to three days in a row because he was harvesting is just what I grew up around,” Abbie says. “It's been my entire life, so knowing I was going to have a chance to do a documentary, I wanted to take the lead and dive into what it means to be a cotton farmer and some of the issues they were going through.”

Although the topic was her idea, Abbie says creating the documentary was a group effort. “I knew I wanted to talk about cotton, but my group helped me figure out the storyline,” Abbie says. Her team included classmates: Joubal Vernaza, Lubbock; Weston Brooks, Eastland; and Anwen Pope, Austin.

Originally, Abbie interviewed her father, but she joked he kept answering in a way that indicated she already knew the answer to the questions she asked. So, Vernaza, who did not grow up on a farm, spent extended time with Abbie’s parents learning about cotton production over a homecooked meal and interviewing Abbie’s father in the cab of his cotton stripper-baler as he harvested last year’s crop.

“It was all new to me,” admits Vernaza, who was born in Ecuador before immigrating to the U.S. “I did go to a farming high school (Lubbock Cooper), so I had a general knowledge about farming, but it was new to me going into this project.”

Weathering Times

The documentary addresses the impact of extreme weather, timing and the high cost of production. “We'll have dry years, but this year was exceptionally dry,” Kyle says in the video. “We were as dry as we've ever been. And then we started picking up the rains in September and October and now we're probably as wet as we've ever been.”

Norrell agreed. “This is cutting into my bottom line. This has been one of the most expensive years I've ever had, mainly because of so much irrigation. When prices are down, especially in the fall, well, that's cutting down on your income. That's my paycheck.”

Norrell, who has farmed for 36 years, explained how no two years are alike. “Whatever happens this year, next year it'll be something different. You're always going to be trying to make it better and trying to make improvements and preparing for the future.”

As Kyle talked about how weather can be unpredictable and untimely, he added, “Sometimes nature is very harsh. But it reminds us, we’re not going to live here forever.”

Abbie also highlights in Texas Snow the discrepancy between the cost of production versus what farmers are paid for their crops. “This is a used cotton stripper. It’s a 16 model and it cost, $575, 000,” Kyle says to Vernaza as he drove stripper-baler. “The biggest deal for us is the relationship between what we get for our commodities and the cost. We pay for a lot of technology that has been very costly above what we save, plus, what we make off the crop production-wise.

“Back not so many years ago, a bag of seed might be anywhere from $30 to $50 a bag to where it's $400 a bag now. It does make more but doesn't make that much more, especially for the price.”

The documentary also addresses the average age of farmers and the difficulty beginning a career in farming. “It takes a lot of money to get this thing going,” Norrell said, “and if you don't have some help, it's hard to get started. So, you've almost got to have some farming background, somehow to get started. It's tough.”

Towards the conclusion of the documentary, Abbie’s father talks about how farming is a good life, but for the risk and the money he’s spent the last four to five years to produce a crop, it’s almost taken everything he’s spent a lifetime making. “It's a hard decision. Do you keep going, thinking it's got to turn around, or do you get out before you lose everything? I don't want to get out. I'm too young to stop working, but I feel like I'm too old to change occupations.”

A look back

Since graduation, Abbie has moved to Ohio to become a producer communications specialist for Certified Angus Beef. When asked what she admires about her dad, she says, “Just the amount of work he puts in. I work from 8 to 5. If I’m home, I’m not doing much, which feels strange because when he works, he works until the job’s done. There’s no, ‘We’re stopping right now.’ You only stop because you’re running out of light or the humidity’s too high or you’ve been running for 12 hours,” Abbie says. “He looks on like all farmers do. It’s that half-grin of, ‘Oh, it’s been a hard day.’ But just as he says in the video, it reminds us we’re not going to be here forever. This is just what we’re doing for now.”

Texas Snow was published on social media Oct. 8, 2019. Abbie says she hopes viewers will gain an appreciation for what farmers do and for cotton. “It’s a whole way of life: West Texas and cotton and Texas Tech. It all goes together. It’s one seamless culture and you’ve got to share it, especially when it’s the biggest cotton-producing area in the nation.”

Abbie graduated from Texas Tech University with a bachelor's in Agricultural Communications and Electronic Media and Communications. Her documentary won an award at the JCMI Video Fest and made it to the Flatland Film Festival. To view Texas Snow, click here.

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