When a cotton field is in full bloom, it’s a sight to behold.

Sometimes referred to as “Southern snow,” it might be easy to mistake a field full of the fluffy stuff for winter precipitation.

Cotton harvesting began a few weeks ago on Marshall Farms in Baker, where James Marshall has farmed since 1977. In recent years, James’ son, Nick, has helped him run the operation.

With 1,800 acres, the Marshalls have one of the biggest cotton crops in Northwest Florida. In addition to cotton, this year they also planted about 700 acres of peanuts — another popular panhandle crop.

“My dad started farming back in the 1940s over in Jay in Santa Rosa County,” James said. “I joined him right out of high school, and then later I bought this farm for myself.”

After graduating from college, Nick said it was “a no-brainer” that he would follow his father into farming.

“It’s a good life,” Nick said. “But there’s a lot more to it than most people realize.”

‘This has been a good year’

While cotton was once an extremely labor intensive crop, since 2009 the Marshalls have used two state-of-the-art John Deere cotton pickers to help them harvest their fields. The huge machines resemble the “Transformers” of movie fame, with different sections opening up and extending during different phases of the cotton picking and baling process.

At around $600,000 each, the high-tech machines aren’t cheap. As James sees it, however, they are worth every penny.

“Before we got these pickers, you had to have a lot more people involved in the process,” he explained. “Each one of these pickers takes three tractors out of the equation, and three workers. This way is much more efficient, and there’s less waste left on the field.”

The machines are equipped with complicated computers that monitor every aspect of the picking and baling process. The farmer sits in a cab high above the ground and runs the picker across the field, much in the same way a homeowner would cut his grass with a riding lawn mower. Unlike a lawn mower, however, this machine is smart enough to be able to extract the valuable cotton “lint” — the desirable white stuff — without cutting down the entire plant.

The giant cotton picker is equipped with a row of sharp spindles that tears the cotton lint from the stalk. A second row of "doffers"  removes the lint from the spindles and pulls it into a bin where it is wrapped by a large sheet of plastic, similar to an industrial garbage bag. When full, each bundle weighs about 5,000 pounds.

“In a good year, four acres of cotton will yield about 500 pounds of cotton lint,” Nick said. “So far, this has been a good year.”

Technological advances

While some vegetable farmers have bemoaned the lack of rain in the area over the past two months, the Marshalls say it’s been a blessing for their cotton crop.

“We usually do our planting in the spring, around early to mid-April,” James said. “We were lucky that we got rain when we needed it during the early part of the growing season, and not a lot of rain when you don’t want it, during the gathering time.”

With a farm as large as theirs, the Marshalls don’t rely just on luck and Mother Nature’s whims. A few years ago they purchased an irrigation system that helps them make up for any rain deficits.

Rain isn’t the only variable that needs to be controlled, however. Cotton needs lots of sunshine in order to yield a great deal of “fruit.” Too many cloudy days can be almost as bad as too much or too little rain, since without sunlight, the cotton can actually rot on the stalk.

In addition to weather, cotton farmers must contend with other pests.

“Deer love to eat cotton buds,” James said. “They’re a real headache for us up here.”

Technological advances in cotton seed production have helped mitigate other traditional pests, such as the boll weevil and tiny worms that like to feast on cotton seeds. The Marshalls are the only farmers in Florida to be a part of the new product evaluation team for Monsanto, the massive agrochemical and agricultural technology company.

“Monsanto produces GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds that when a worm bites them, they die,” Nick said. “Some people don’t like the idea of GMOs, but they’re really better for the environment, because we don’t have to spray the fields with insecticide all the time.”

Dollars and cents

Like the Marshalls' high-tech cotton pickers, cotton seeds are expensive. One bag costs around $715, with one bag covering about eight acres.

As with any crop, the market for cotton can vary. Currently, it brings about 70 cents a pound, or about $1,000 an acre.

“A lot of it depends on the grade of the cotton,” Nick said. “The best cotton will have long, strong strands, and be very white.”

In addition to the lint, which is used to make everything from blue jeans to dollar bills, the seeds, which are used to make cotton seed oil and animal feed, are also part of the harvest.

“We don’t make a big profit on the seeds," James said. "But it helps to pay the cost of the ginning.”

The ginning — the process of separating the seeds from the lint — takes place at a cotton gin in Santa Rosa County. The huge rolls of cotton are picked by large trucks and carried to the gin during harvest season.

A tough job

Thanks to mechanization and modern technology, growing and picking cotton is nothing like the process some local residents remember from their childhood. Walton County resident David Ward hand-picked cotton with his family during lean times in the 1940s.

“Some people like my mother could pick cotton very quickly,” he recalled. “I wasn’t one of them.”

Ward remembers that some of the boys his age would put a small melon in the bottom of their cotton bag before weighing in.

“It looked like they picked a lot more than they did,” he said with a laugh.

James Marshall said while he would occasionally pick cotton as a child, he couldn’t imagine doing it today.

“If I had to do that now, I wouldn’t grow cotton,” James said. “The poor people who had to do that for a living were tough.”