On November 24 I had the great luck to meet Jordan Lea and his partner Phil Canale in Greenville. Jordan and Phil are cotton merchants and run Eastern Trading Company. I spent most of the morning learning about cotton pricing and the global cotton trade from Jordan. He shared a lot of comparative figures between the US and China, including the extraordinary growth and decline in cotton production in China and the US: In 1998 China grew 21 million bales and in 2008 they grew 51 million bales. In these same time frame, the US grew 11.4 million bales and this year only 4.4 million. In the last 10 years there has also been a reversal in the amount of US cotton that is exported– now, most of it leaves the United States. Cotton consumption is also falling or at a complete stand still in some cases due to the global economic slow down.
In the afternoon we filmed some with Jordan as he talked with his future’s broker in California about the enormous drop in cotton prices and worked with Phil to negotiate some orders. Jordan also exchanged instant messages with a partner in Pakistan. I learned a great deal about prices, how futures work, and began to gain some insight into global trade. The great news for Cotton Road is that Jordan has a contact in China who receives all the cotton that is brought through the Port of Shanghai for inspection. Her name is Aurora Xie and she will be such an important person to me in China; Carl Brown’s bales of cotton will have to go through her before they are sent on to a mill. If it weren’t for Jordan’s help I would not be able to follow the cotton as closely as it now seems possible to do.
Jordan also told me about a folk artist in Georgia who paints rural cotton scenes onto tin. His name is Leonard Jones. A piece of Leonard’s was hanging in the Eastern Trading offices, a close up image of a figure with bowed head and a large hat, picking through a bushel of cotton. I can easily envision Leonard’s work on a poster or other visual material for the documentary.
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On November 7 Mark Gamble (second camera) and I spent the day shooting the cotton harvest on Carl Brown’s farm near Aiken, South Carolina. We shot on three different fields over the course of the day, spending the majority of our time in a couple of fields on Montmorenci Road and finishing on a very large field called the Middle Field. Carl Brown and his partner Grover, along with Grover’s son Grover Jr., each worked a machine: Grover drove the cotton picker, Carl drove the cotton buggy, and Grover Jr. packed the cotton into the module builder. Together they worked nonstop until sundown at 6 PM. The weather was perfect: sunny and warm. The sight of cotton boles in full bloom in a field is astonishingly beautiful– and every farmer will tell you this.
On Saturday we went to Cameron, South Carolina to Cameron Gin to film Carl Brown’s cotton being ginned. Moss and Drake Perrow, the owners of the gin, had already been hauling Mr. Brown’s cotton from Aiken for at least two weeks. In fact, they had been stacking his cotton on their farm and holding it for me until I was ready to come to Cameron to film. They had 12 or more modules at their own farm and several on site at the gin. The gin’s truck driver hauled several modules from Aiken twice on Saturday but he didn’t want to be filmed doing this, so Mark and I stayed at the gin and filmed with Moss Perrow and about a dozen workers as they ginned Carl Brown’s cotton all day long. By the time we left I believe they had ginned about four or five of his modules into many bales of cotton, each one marked with a PBI tag containing a special number that will allow the gin and his merchant to keep track of the bale and assign it characteristics that will rate its quality. As each bale comes out of the gin’s press, a sample is also taken from the bale and sent to a classing lab in Florence, South Carolina. I hope to see Mr. Brown’s cotton samples classed on Tuesday this week. Pictures will be posted soon. Tomorrow I’ll return to Cameron in the afternoon to gather a few more interviews and photographs of all the workers. Andrew Cline, Production Assistant on Cotton Road, is taking portraits of all the workers we’ve met since early May so that I have an easy way to introduce workers in China to the workers that grew the cotton they are turning into products.
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This is the first blog post of many to come that will document my journey from South Carolina to China. I am producing a film about the global movement of the commodity of cotton as it passes through the hands of workers from field to gin to shipyard to factory to consumer.
I know what at least two or three of you are thinking: ”yeah, I used to read Laura’s blog and it was pretty boring. Nothing ever happened.” Indeed, my last post was in February of 2008; due to inactivity and no software upgrades, my blog was hacked. But I’m starting over and with a purpose this time.
Ideally, this blog would have started on May 1 when I showed up in Bennettsville, SC for the first time to shoot cotton planting on the Lynch farm. Or at least by mid May when I scrounged another camera to film on the Carl Brown farm in Aiken, SC. Most of the summer I begged and borrowed equipment, which did slow me down; by early September I finally had my own camera. I’ve been shooting since then, at least twice a month, on both farms through the duration of the cotton season. The people collaborating with me to make this film are an extraordinary group: farmers, gin operators, farm laborers from South Carolina and Texas, agriculture extension workers, and cotton merchants. I hope to introduce some of them to you here before I depart for China.
- repairing a disc, Lynch Farm, Bennettsville
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