Cotton Just Went Farm to Table

December 5, 2016 12:22 PM

The red dirt girl has come home to the farm holding a cotton sheet. The heirloom sheet’s white borders contain agriculture’s elusive full circle of seed, fiber, gin, mill and finished product wrapped in a single farm package. In a time of anemic commodity prices, Red Land Cotton is conjuring the past to carve the future and using agriculture’s permanent echo to go vertical.

The proof is in the product, and “Made in the U.S.A.” has never looked or felt as fine. 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 remarkable road from seminal idea to farming venture was carved by 56-year-old Yeager, a maverick third-generation producer born with farming hands and entrepreneurial eyes. As a boy, Yeager watched in awe as a big operating neighbor drove by each harvest with a convoy of cotton equipment. Yeager swore he’d one day captain his own fleet: “I promised myself that would be me some day. I would have my own string of cotton pickers.”

In 1979, he bought his first 100 acres at 18, financed by the Federal Land Bank, and never looked away from a life in cotton. Two picker patents, 5,000 acres of crops, 500 head of cattle, one gin, and a Red Land business later, Yeager remains a hard-driving producer.

“Just taking what I get from the market without trying for more is not enough,” he says. “I want people to know my crops are the highest quality. Farmers should not be afraid to promote and look vertical.”

Yeager rotates corn and cotton on rolling ground prone to erosion. Water is quick to find a crack and open a gully, and 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 seed costs and improve harvest time. With three John Deere 7760 roller pickers gobbling up six-row skip, it’s a fast graze across the fields.

“I can’t speak for others, but I’m not having yield troubles and I’ve nearly doubled my productivity,” he says. “Who enjoys putting 300 gallons 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 is a model of efficiency, managed under the keen eye of Tony Blankenship, 44, a jack-of-all-trades cotton master who oversees ginning, works year round on the Yeager operation, and farms his own land on the side.

“Getting a great crop is not enough and fieldwork alone doesn’t bring success in farming,” Blankenship says. “Mark is a fine businessman and knows how to sell his product.”

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 questions of rotten cotton.

“I’ll always try new things to add value. Going vertical means your farm products must be distinct,” he says.

Ever the innovator, Yeager tinkered with the idea of branded cotton products until 2015, when he placed a video on Instagram of a forklift moving a cotton bale. His sister, living 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, and Yeager wanted to harness those same skills on the farm. Her campaign awareness and psychology of advertising; 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 knew I could market. We just had to fill in blanks.”

Yet, before those blanks were filled with knowledge from vendors, textile consultants and agriculture organizations, a cotton prototype was needed. Literally, where to find the finished fiber, fabric and feel? Yeager and Brakefield quickly found their Ur 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.

Cotton, from Seed to Sheet

Click through the interactive timeline to see the year-long process of getting Red Land Cotton from the field to the bedroom.

Yvonne Johnson, director of product development for Cotton Incorporated, says the Yeager’s home textile venture speaks to the American farm legacy and 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.”

Formula in hand, a far bigger hurdle loomed. There was virtually no vertical cotton format entirely within the United States. Mills once took cotton from spinning to final product; no more. In March 2016, SpunLab in Graniteville, S.C., agreed to spin Yeager’s high grade bales into yarn, with no mixing from any other cotton sources: a guarantee of absolute purity.

Spinning nailed down, a weaving arrangement was made with Hamrick Mills in Gaffney, S.C.: 19,000 yards from 48 bales in the first run. Next, a finisher was located in Flinstone, Ga., to bleach part of the product and leave a portion natural. Finishing, 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. A good bit 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 has pulled tightly on the cords of family and farm for the Yeagers. Brakefield’s younger brothers are already in the operation: Mark, 23, handles row crops, and Joe, 21, tends the cattle.

“This venture has brought us closer together on the farm,” Yeager explains. “My daughter works 50-50 with me; my boys are on board; and my wife, Cassandra, is fired up about it all.”

Yeager average 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 really care about,” he 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.”

This is Yeager’s version of farm to table, except with a "seed to sheets" twist.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to find profit and improve this operation because someday my kids will take over,” he adds. “I’m never going to sit still as a farmer or a businessman.”

For more information, visit Red Land Cotton.

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Spell Check

Tuscumbia , AL
1/7/2017 07:29 PM

  The Yeagers farm the land behind our farm. Great folks! We bought their sheets and immediately fell in love. The sheets are durable but soft like my grandmother's sheets. They breathe and feel wonderful. Worth every penny!


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