Drought, rain and hurricanes: Growing cotton in Jefferson County

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Today, Ernest and Sarah Fulford plant, harvest and tend to the family's 1,200 acres.
Much of that land has been passed to Ernest from his father, who, in turn, inherited the property from his own father – a World War II veteran who chose to pursue the farm life after serving his country.
"He liked to grow things," explains Ernest. "My granddaddy bought his first land when he got out after the war."
In 1945, the senior Fulford came home from the war and bought land in Jefferson County, in which he grew peanuts. Those peanuts, in turn, were sold to fund his purchase of more land.
"He'd get up early, boil peanuts and take them to the Capitol," said Ernest Fulford, adding that his grandfather ended up purchasing the family's land through the sale of boiled peanuts to Tallahassee's businessmen and congressmen.
After several years of growing peanuts, soybeans and corn, the Fulford family added cotton to their list of crops in 1994.
Farming is often considered a lifestyle. Still, it is equally a business and livelihood for the Fulfords – so the fluctuating market value of various crops is a driving motivator for most of their planting decisions. While farmers from around the United States are seeing a decline in market rates when it comes to selling their crops, Ernest says that the market for cotton and peanut harvests continue to be the best option for his family's livelihood.
Cotton goes into many of the household goods which Americans buy every day – coffee filters, book bindings, paper products and clothing items are frequently constructed from cotton.
Even though cotton is a crucial item on the American market, Sarah Fulford explains that the country's cotton farmers aren't exactly included in the cotton industry's sweeping profits.
Sarah gave the example of a pair of jeans – a quality pair of jeans (with denim made from cotton) can cost close to $100.
"We don't get paid anywhere near that cost, though," explains Sarah, explaining that while cotton items aren't always cheap, it doesn't mean farmers are being paid for their efforts in producing the crop. "What we get is pennies on the dollar."
The disproportional market value offered to cotton farmers isn't the only series of set-backs the Fulfords have had to face in recent years when it comes to making a living off their land.
For the last three years, the weather and its series of hurricanes have hit the Fulford farms hard.
"The last three years, we've really been affected by the hurricanes, and last year was worse than the previous two," says Ernest.
While their farm lay directly in the path of Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Michael hit at a crucial time in cotton development.
"The cotton was ready to harvest, it was open and fluffed out," says Ernest. "The previous two years, the cotton wasn't opened yet. So they affected us, but it didn't blow it out as bad as Michael."
The winds from Hurricane Michael ripped the soft cotton apart, and throughout 2018, their fields also received a lot of rain during the cotton season, leading up to the hurricane.
While vast technological advances have been made in the farming industry, much of the business still remains at the whim of the weather.
Too little rain during the beginning of the season prevents good cotton growth and causes a "bad stand" in the soil, which causes issues all year long.
Meanwhile, too much rain can lower the quality of the cotton and yield of the cotton, resulting in a lower fetch at market.
While they were plagued with an abundance of rain in 2018, this year's lengthy period of dry weather has brought Florida to the verge of a drought that approaches a national disaster – a setback for farmers around the state, including the Fulfords.
"[Florida was] almost at a point where we could be declared in a federal disaster," explains Ernest.
Right now, while harvesting, Ernest says the family and their farmhands are busy keeping equipment in operation and getting prepared to harvest the fluffy white pods of cotton that have popped open in the 1,200 acres of cotton fields.
"If the weather will only dry out a little bit," he adds.
Sarah is also busy finding new ways for the family to make income through the creation of cotton wreaths and selling stock for their family farm.
While farming comes with good years and bad years, Ernest says the joy of seeing his children run amongst his family's fields, enjoying the farm he grew up in, satisfies him.
"We wouldn't be where we are or have the things we have if farming wasn't a way of life for us," says Sarah. We can't imagine raising our kids anywhere else but the farm."
Ernest agrees, adding: "I don't think I would do anything different. It's a business as well, but you have to love it."
While Ernest grew up in Jefferson County on his father and grandfather's farm and attended Aucilla Christian Academy (graduating in 1987), Sarah grew up surrounded by city life in Elkhart, Ind.
After moving to Florida as an adult, Sarah ended up meeting Ernest and eventually marrying the Jefferson County farm boy – although she laughs that she had no experience whatsoever with farm life herself.
"Now, I can't imagine living anywhere else," she adds.
While the family has been through hurricanes, drought, a life-altering illness and farm accident, making for an uncertain future, the Fulfords continue to raise their children on the land of their fathers – filling fields with cotton and peanuts and staying positive.
If you are interested in purchasing a cotton wreath from Sarah for $35, wreath orders can be placed by email at farmwife@centurylink.net or by contacting Sarah through her Facebook account.