Family farm and business woven into cotton venture
The red dirt girl has returned to the farm holding a cotton sheet. The heirloom sheet’s white borders contain agriculture’s elusive full circle wrapped in a single farm package.
The father-daughter team of Mark Yeager and Anna Brakefield is taking heirloom cotton linens from farm to home and protecting the purity in every link of the production chain. Planting, growing, picking, ginning, spinning, weaving and blasting over social media, Red Land Cotton is a farm and business marriage anchored deep in the red clay of Moulton, Ala.
In an age of sputtering cotton markets and shuttering gins, the road from seminal idea to farming venture was carved by 56-year-old Yeager, a third-generation producer born with farming hands and entrepreneurial eyes.
In 1979, he bought his first 100 acres at 18 years old, financed by the Federal Land Bank, and never looked away from a life in cotton. Two picker patents, 5,000 acres, 500 head of cattle, one gin and a textile business later, Yeager is a hard-driving producer.
He rotates corn and cotton on rolling ground prone to erosion. Water is quick to find a crack and open a gully, so Yeager protects his soil with a no-till cover crop scheme. He planted two and one cotton on 30" skip rows in 2016 to save on input costs and harvest time. With three John Deere 7760 roller pickers gobbling up a six-row skip, it’s a fast graze across fields.
“I’m not having yield troubles and I’ve nearly doubled my productivity,” he says. “Who enjoys putting 300 gal. of diesel in a picker every morning?”
In 1994, Yeager rolled quality, time and expense into a unified business bale and built his own gin with a single Continental 161 stand. Yeager Gin Company is a model of efficiency, managed under Tony Blankenship, a jack-of-all-trades cotton master who oversees ginning, works year-round on the Yeager operation and farms his own land. “Getting a great crop is not enough, and fieldwork alone doesn’t bring success,” Blankenship says.
Yeager goes against convention and cleans his cotton twice to gain a higher grade, running everything through two 1950s Moss Continental lint cleaners at the lowest heat possible. No added moisture and no rotten cotton.
“I’ll always try new things to add value. Going vertical means your products must be distinct,” he says.
Ever the innovator, Yeager tinkered with the idea of branded cotton products until 2015, when he posted a video on Instagram of a forklift moving a cotton bale. His sister in Texas saw the video and sent Yeager a message: “I’d love to have sheets made from Alabama cotton.”
Serendipity smiled and Yeager reached for the phone to call his daughter. It was time for the red dirt girl to return. With a degree in design and marketing, Brakefield, 27, had lived in New York for two years working in advertising. Yeager wanted to harness those same skills on the farm: her campaign awareness and psychology of advertising with his business acumen and insight into cotton production.
“We were ready to blend agriculture and art,” she says. “I knew Daddy could grow and I could market. We just had to fill in the blanks.”
Yet, before those blanks were filled with knowledge from vendors, textile consultants and agriculture organizations, a cotton prototype was needed. Yeager and Brakefield found their cotton source, a historical blueprint in the form of a 1920s family heirloom sheet. They took the pristine specimen to Cotton Incorporated in Cary, N.C., for reverse engineering to crack the weaving code.
Yvonne Johnson, director of product development for Cotton Incorporated, says the Yeager’s home textile venture speaks to the American farm legacy and the move to modern agriculture. “Mark’s family has been farming for generations. Farm practices have changed over time and so have farming business innovations. Red Land Cotton is a great example of diversification and expansion,” Johnson says.
Formula in hand, a far bigger hurdle loomed. There was virtually no vertical cotton format in the U.S. In March 2016, SpunLab in Graniteville, S.C., agreed to spin Yeager’s high grade bales into yarn, without mixing other cotton sources.
A weaving arrangement was then made with Hamrick Mills in Gaffney, S.C.: 19,000 yards from 48 bales in the first run. Next, a finisher was located in Flintstone, Ga., to bleach part of the product and leave a portion natural. Cutting and sewing was established in North Bergen, N.J., before transport back to Moulton for packaging and shipping.
Born of the 2015 harvest, Red Land Cotton shipped its first sheet orders in October 2016. Heavier than traditional material, the natural sheets contain discernible leaf and stem material in the fabric. Beauty in imperfection, it’s a tactile sense of history and the true feel of cotton.
Red Land Cotton has pulled tightly on the cords of family and farm for the Yeagers. Brakefield’s brother Mark, 23, handles row crops, and Joe, 21, tends the cattle.
Yeager averages 6,000 bales per year and says with an international cotton market stacked against U.S. farmers, the time is right for a venture to preserve the domestic identity of cotton. Seed to sheet, he’s banking on an American product tracked and traced to and from his ground.
“Millennials demand a story and I don’t blame them. We want people to identify with an average farming family growing a crop and making a product they care about,” Yeager says.
“Where does it come from? Who grows it? Who manufactures it?” Brakefield asks. “Those are market veins waiting to be tapped in new ways by U.S. farmers.”
Cotton from Seed to Sheet
Cotton is planted in early May, and the Yeager family diligently manages the crop during the growing process until it is time for harvest in early October.
Each bale that comes out of the Yeager’s gin is tagged to trace it back to its field. Once they receive cotton classifications, they select the best bales with the longest staple fibers to use in their sheets and linens.
The highest quality bales are shipped to SpunLab. The cotton is blended and cleaned one last time before it goes through the carding process. Then it goes through a process called roving and onto spinning.
The yarn is sent to Hamrick Mills to be divided into warp and weft. The warp is the frame of the cloth and is coated with a “sizer” to tolerate the friction of weaving. The weft is the filler yarn that goes across the fabric.
The cloth is processed by a Flintstone, Ga., company, which involves removing the sizing put on during weaving, softening the fabric and in the case of white fabric, bleaching it to create a creamy white finish.
Cutting & Sewing
Based on the Yeagers desired specifications, the fabric is cut, sewn, folded and prepared into finished goods by a company in North Bergen, N.J.
Packaging & Shipping
The Yeagers personally fulfill all their orders out of their farm office building. They hand-pack all orders to ensure the highest quality is delivered to the consumer.