Monday, December 8, 2014

Cotton Gins Cranking Out Bales by the Truckload

The factory sits some 10 miles east of bustling Interstate 5, surrounded by acres of fertile farmland.

On one end, dozens of round and rectangular cotton modules dot the flat landscape. On the other end, a towering plant operating almost around the clock processing this year’s cotton harvest. Newly baled lint is loaded on flatbed trailers, ready to be shipped. A conveyor belt dumps cotton trash – everything from crumbled leaves to twigs – and fuzzy cotton seeds into large mounds.

Ron Nimmo of Pacific Ginning explains cotton gin process.
 “We started operating at the end of October and we’ll probably operate into December or January,” explains Ron Nimmo, manager of Pacific Ginning Company in Firebaugh. “We get cotton as close as 12 miles and as far as 100 miles away.”

In the end, his plant will produce approximately 45,000 bales of cotton – enough fiber to make 14.6 million pairs of jeans. That’s almost enough to give every person in Los Angeles four pairs apiece.
With the cotton harvest wrapped up, the focus has shifted to the three dozen cotton gins operating in California. This is the next step in the dirt to shirt story of cotton.

Most of us remember Yale-educated American Eli Whitney, who patented the cotton gin in 1794, a machine that revolutionized cotton production by speeding up the process of removing seed from the cotton. The cotton gin transformed the industry and turned cotton into the nation’s leading export crop by the mid-1800s.
Whitney’s hand-cranked gin could process 50 pounds of cotton a day – roughly a tenth the size of today’s 500-pound bale. (By the way, “gin” is short for engine. The hand-cranked gin later evolved into a steam-power gin.)

Industrialization and technology today allows gins like Nimmo’s to crank out 20 bales an hour.

For those unfamiliar with the ginning process, here’s a Reader’s Digest version offered up by Nimmo. In his plant, there are 14 steps – or mechanical processes – involved starting with a module feeder that takes the cotton modules (fiber is picked by the harvesters and compressed into a 5,000 to 10,000-pound module in the field) into the factory line.

A Pacific Ginning factory worker wraps a bale of cotton.
Then there are a series of machines that dry, clean and separate, or pull apart, the foreign matter (trash) and seed from the fiber before moisture is put back in to allow a press to squeeze the lint into a 500-pound bale. The bale is finally bagged, or plastic wrapped, and tagged for identification purposes before being loaded by a forklift onto a flatbed trailer ready to be shipped to a warehouse or spinner.

The waste goes to dairies for bedding. Cottonseed goes for livestock and poultry feed as well as oil. About 5 percent of cottonseed is saved for planting.

Cotton trash and seed are piled up outside the ginning plant.
Here’s an interesting fact: 100 pounds of cotton fiber produces about 155 to 160 pounds of seed. For gins, the seed is as good as gold. “The income for the gin comes from selling the seed,” Nimmo says.


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