Autumn can be a beautiful time in the northwest Georgia mountains. As the weather turns mild, many residents of rural Chattooga County can be found saying that these times are like “picking in high cotton.” But for Wayne & Greg Hurley, they know all too well just where that saying originated from. Wayne Hurley grew up on his parent’s farm outside of Summerville, Ga. growing and picking cotton.
During the late 1940’s and early 50’s, Wayne can remember his father driving through “Snuffyville” with a low trailer and picking up 40-50 day laborers to work the picking season during the first weeks of October. The 70 acres of cotton at Hurley Farm were once part of a 400 acre plantation and Wayne’s father had worked this land since before the Great Depression. Once out of school, young Wayne had seen enough cotton to last a lifetime and departed for a career in the military. His father’s passing in 1961 brought that career to an early halt, and Wayne left Germany to return to his Chattooga roots and help his brother work the land.
During the turn of the century, the cotton industry was a major economic factor in Chattooga County. Almost all farmers at the time grew cotton as part of their crops. The Hurley’s and Alfred McDaniel are the only two remaining cotton farmers in the county. Wayne and his nephew, Greg, along with Greg’s son, Garrett Hurley, represent three generations and over 80 years of cotton farming at Hurley Farm. For the past several years, Wayne has worked with Mount Vernon Mills, The Georgia Extension Office, and Farm Bureau, which Wayne has been the president of for a mere 30 years, to assist the 4-H Club with an interactive event for every 5th grader in Chattooga County. Cotton Patch Day offers a first-hand look at the cotton farming experience to allow children a better understanding of where their clothing originates from. Social Studies teachers use the event to highlight Georgia Social Studies Standards surrounding slavery, the Civil War and the economic reliance of the south on farming.
Over 300 students visit one of the cotton fields at Hurley Farm for the event and move through several “stations” where instructors describe aspects of the cotton farming process. From planting and harvesting, to bailing and processing in a cotton gin, the students get a chance to follow the cotton through its path to becoming garments in retail stores. They also get to touch and feel the cotton and witness a modern “cotton picker” machine take a few laps through the rows of cotton.
Mr. Hurley admits that without modern machines, cotton farming would no longer be possible. He remembers the last year his father attempted to gather day laborers for the picking season; men and women who worked long hours for .03 cents per pound. By the early 1960’s, the welfare system was providing so much support that no one wanted to work the back-breaking labor of cotton picking, when they could get by on government assistance. The Hurleys eventually had to purchase a $650,000 behemoth cotton-picking combines to harvest their crops on time. As time and technology changed the way cotton is farmed, the Hurley’s remain dedicated to their land. A trait that Mr. Hurley says is essential to all farmers. “You don’t do this job to get rich…” said Mr. Hurley. “You have to love the land and love what you do.”
While 2016 has seen drought conditions, Hurley remembers a time in the 70’s when a September freeze crippled his land. Fields that typically produced nearly 200 bales only yielded a meager three bales of cotton. “There are good times and there are hard times.” Hurley remembers turning his fields with teams of mules and planting in May. Now the fields are planted with a no-till drill and bits of cotton remain on the ground after the October harvest in order to keep the soil nutrient rich and fertile. A century ago, boll weevil infestations would destroy millions of dollars worth of crops so the state of Georgia still issues special permits for cotton farmers in an effort to keep a watchful eye on the crops.
At age 78, Wayne Hurley still misses his shot a career in the military, he enjoys watching the buses full of students pulling through the farm to catch a glimpse of what cotton farming is today.
For more information about cotton farming and the Hurley Farm Cotton Patch Day, contact the local Georgia Extension Office; 706-857-0744.