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Wisconsin Agriculturist

Cotton's story, Pennsylvania-style

Folks in Pennsylvania don't know much about cotton. Up here, a field of white, fluffy stuff is a sheet of frozen precipitation and pre-emerge is something Puxatauney Phil does in February.

But several times a month, Deborah Selfridge, in her distinctly Pennsylvanian accent, speaks to our northern brethren about the benefits of cotton.

She demonstrates in two- to three-hour workshops how cotton starts out as a seed and ends up as a shirt to help fend off those cold, north winds. She spins tales about her trips to foreign cotton-producing countries such as Uzbekistan, Greece and, uh, California.

If you're thinking that Deborah's cotton workshops have all the excitement of a tax return seminar, you'd be wrong.

Deborah dresses herself up like a mechanized cotton picker during these workshops. Need we say more?

“My daughter Kathryn, 11, does the sections on cotton breeding and spinning, and my son Jonathan, 13, presents modern ginning (both upland and Pima),” Deborah said. “My husband Kerry dresses as either as a Confederate or Union soldier (depending on the venue, of course) and talks about cotton during the Civil War.”

The show features giant boll weevils jumping across Mexico. “It's a very visual thing to keep the kids' interest.”

Deborah also plays “The Boll Weevil Song” while she shows kids how to gin Acala, Pima and upland cottons. Other props include a modern day boll weevil trap (with weevils inside), colored cotton, miniature bales, module covers, piles of seed cotton and ginned cotton, as well as pictures, maps and posters.

“The workshops are fun, lively and hands-on,” Deborah said. “I've presented them to hundreds of children as far north as Ottawa, Canada, and as far south as Key West, Fla.”

And there is a little bit of learning thrown in, although the kids hardly notice. For example, they collect data on the various characteristics of cotton bolls, such as size of boll, color, seed size, type of seed, number of locks and ease of ginning.

Students learn to card and spin cotton, work with cottonseed, and compare cotton to silk, wool and flax (fibers and fabrics). “I teach cotton geography, cotton history and modern day cotton research and processing. I also spend time talking about our cotton seed business.”

Each student receives a 20-page booklet detailing cotton history and processing that has places to insert each of the samples worked on in class.

By now, there is probably a question burning in everyone's mind about why Deborah goes to so much trouble, including the recruitment of innocent family members as actors to liven up the workshops. Shouldn't this lady be in the South, instead of up there in the Keystone State getting cold?

Actually, Deborah has good reason to be in Pennsylvania, since her husband is gainfully employed as an environmental consultant for the maritime industry in a town called Langhorne, which has a rural-like population of around 2,000, and it rains one day out of three.

But really, when you consider that most folks in the South don't know much about cotton, but actually have seen it, while people up north apparently haven't seen it or heard of it, Deborah is in the right place.

In fact, we should devise a plan to move more people like Deborah to Pennsylvania and other non-cotton-producing areas. Their job — and we think this will be a full-time job, with an opportunity for overtime on the weekends — will be to assure northern inhabitants of the United States that we in the South don't spin our cotton directly into $100 bills right on the spot.

Their efforts will keep people informed about cotton, which keeps our circle of influence from closing so quickly. And no doubt, it's closing. Cotton producers comprise an ever-shrinking percentage of the U.S. population while outside the circle some members of Congress hyperventilate at anything that threatens to improve a cotton producer's profitability.

If only a kid named Chuck Grassley had gone to a cotton workshop before he grew up and became “That Corn Guy.” Get the idea?

Deborah knows more than just cotton. She holds two degrees, a bachelor's in agricultural science and a master's in animal nutrition, both from Rutgers.

After graduating, she taught for a short time, then worked for an environmental consulting company before joining American Cyanamid, where she set up computer database systems for weed response ratings.

In 1993, she left American Cyanamid for cotton breeder James Olvey's startup cotton seed company, O&A, Inc., Maricopa, Ariz. She is still with the company today and frequently travels to other countries to set up germplasm exchange programs.

“We do a lot of traveling as a family,” said Deborah, when asked to explain how the workshops got started. “I would always take along some cotton things, because when we stayed with other people, their kids were always interested in it. People kept saying I should put a workshop together, and we finally did.”

The workshops are available to home school associations throughout the United States, for a fee based on how far she has to travel.

She also sells “Bale in a Box” teaching kits to teachers and others. These boxes contain samples of cotton, cotton sliver, a spindle for spinning sliver into thread and several booklets on cotton.

“There are so many people who have no background on cotton,” Deborah said of her quest. “They know their tee-shirts are made out of it. They know their sheets and their towels are made out of it. But that's all they know. They don't know what it takes to grow it, process it, the characteristics we're looking for, how cotton competes in the global market.”

Oh and just to set the record straight, Deborah home schools her two children, and the workshops are incorporated into their curriculum. They really do enjoy participating in them. So does her husband.

And finally, keep spreading the word about cotton, Deborah. She's a true Northern Belle.


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