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Talkin' cotton: Women still boost major Yuma crop
Although the Yuma County Cotton Women club has been defunct for almost 10 years, five women from the group still put aside funds every year to be used as prizes for 4-H cotton projects at the Yuma County Fair.
Past member Vicky Sharp said that a few women, herself included, donate funds to be awarded to the first-, second- and third-place winners in the clothing, textile and craft categories.
She said they continue to do it year after year to encourage people to be “cotton conscious,” a mission that was at the heart of their club when it began in 1964. “The objective of our Yuma County Cotton Women was to actively promote cotton to our friends and to the community.”
The group started in Yuma during a time when polyester was being introduced into the fabric industry, said Sharp, who joined the group in 1985 and was president for two years and later treasurer. Her husband, Clyde, was involved in the cotton farming industry at the time and is currently president of the American Cotton Producers, a branch of the National Cotton Council.
The club consisted of wives of cotton farmers in addition to women who were part of the National Conservation District, clothing store owners and bank employees — just to name a few.
From luncheons and fashion shows to having booths at the Yuma Lettuce Days and the Wellton Tractor Rodeo, women in the club strived to share the benefits of wearing cotton to everyone they met.
Sharp said all of her children learned to sew with cotton, something that the group encouraged of everyone. She added that many of the club members' daughters, one of her own included, participated in the Arizona Maid of Cotton pageant held every year in Scottsdale.
“We made her whole wardrobe out of cotton, her formals and everything.”
The group also aimed to make people aware of the countless ways that cotton is used.
Sharp said most people aren't aware that cotton is used to make U.S. paper currency and that cottonseed is used in cattle feed and can be processed into oil.
The Yuma County Cotton Women took classrooms of students on field trips to the cotton gin in east Yuma and also put together baskets for the first baby born in October, national cotton month.
Carolyn Nickerson, who joined the club when it first began, said they also put out a cookbook in conjunction with cotton women groups in Phoenix, Casa Grande and Buckeye.
“I personally was on a committee that worked on it, and I would go to Phoenix and meet with the ladies. We reviewed the recipes to be sure that they were as accurate as possible,” she said, noting that it is still a treasured item in women's kitchens throughout Arizona.
They also allowed businesses to be associate members of their group. “We would take them some kind of cotton arrangement that they would display in their offices, and we would do that once a year.”
Nickerson said this endeavor helped to increase support for cotton, something that was and still is very important to women in the group.
“The more you sell, the more you can grow,” said Nickerson, who was president of the club for three years. She added that her husband, Jon, is still involved in the cotton farming industry.
When the Yuma County Cotton Women disbanded in 2003, Sharp said, it was mostly because women in the group just became too busy. The last of Arizona's cotton women organizations, the Casa Grande Valley Cotton and Agriculture Women, recently called it quits for similar reasons.
Even though the Yuma group is no longer officially a club, Sharp said the women remain in touch and still meet every so often.
“The club was a good opportunity especially for the cotton women in the whole county to get to know each other and build strong, lasting relationships that still carry on today.”
Yuma cotton facts:
• With warm springtime temperatures, hot summers and dry falls, Yuma is a prime location for cotton production. It's planted in March and April and is furrow irrigated. The cotton plant requires about 180 to 200 days from planting to full maturity. After the plant is defoliated, the crop is mechanically harvested.
• Cotton acreage in 2012 is topping out at approximately 18,000 acres in Yuma County. The 2012 growing conditions were almost perfect, with few heat stress events, which has severely impacted flower retention and boll set in previous years. Yields are promising this year.
• Cotton is a member of the mallow family of plants. The Arabic people called it “qutun,” which is where we get the word “cotton.”
• The primary Yuma variety is short staple or upland cotton. It is the major species of cotton grown worldwide, accounting for about 90 percent of planted acreage. Upland cotton has a fiber length of about 1-1/4 inches, compared with 1-1/2 inches for the Pima variety that also is grown here in less quantity.
• Pima cotton is most readily identified in the field by its bright yellow blooms that are much brighter and richer in color than the creamy white upland blossoms.
• Yuma County cotton production ranks third in Arizona.
• The average cotton yield is about 1,400 pounds per acre, valued at $700. Cotton quality is based on its external appearance, brightness, color and fiber length and strength.
• Cotton is a unique crop in that it is both food and fiber. Cottonseed is used as a supplement for dairy feed and is also processed into oil. Uses for cotton fibers range from heavy industrial to fine fabrics.
• Seeds are separated from the cotton fiber and the cotton is cleaned at the cotton gin. From the gin, the clean fiber is pressed together and made into bales. Each bale weighs about 500 pounds.
• One bale of cotton can make 250 pairs of men's cotton pants — or 1,217 men's shirts, or 764 dress shirts, or 896 woven blouses, or 542 women's skirts, or 328 women's jeans, or 3,015 baby diapers, or 782 terry bath towels, or 7,820 men's handkerchiefs, or 484 men's dress pants, or 373 men's work pants, or 180 men's overalls, or 210 sheets or 1,210 pillowcases.
• U.S. paper currency isn't paper at all but a blend of 75 percent cotton lint and 25 percent linen. A 480-pound bale of cotton can be made into more than 313,000 $100 bills.
— Source: Kurt Nolte, an agriculture agent and Yuma County Cooperative Extension director.