From Chapter 12:  Summers of Triumph, Summers of Discord


Frank Mitchener, Jr., amateur historian, former president of the National Cotton Council, and prominent citizen of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, works from an office that is built like a chapel, or an art gallery. The wooden beams of the ceiling vault upward. The walls are white, except for one, made of glass, which overlooks the green banks of a quiet stream called the Cassidy Bayou.

Drop a stick into that stream, and it will travel, through countless detours, a hundred miles southwest to meet the Mississippi River at the city of Vicksburg. Its route will traverse the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which is not a delta at all, strictly speaking, but a flood plain that stretches from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south; from the levees along the Mississippiís banks in the west to the edge of Mississippiís "hill country" in the east. It is a land of legend, a birthplace of Faulknerian visions and the Blues, home to inexhaustibly rich soil, pervasive poverty, racial atrocities, and proud, aristocratic gentility.

Historian James Cobb called it "the most Southern place on earth" in 1985 and discovered only later, as he immersed himself in the areaís history, that the Delta represented not so much the Old South as the New. At the time of the Civil War, the Delta was a land of forests and swamps, shunned by most as a breeding ground for disease. Only later, with the arrival of railroads and the federally-financed levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries, did the Delta become the domain of "planter aristocrats". But Cobb realized that this new elite was no traditional aristocracy, more concerned with social tradition than the aggressive pursuit of profit. The cotton growers of the Delta organized their plantations according to modern principles of industrial management, adopted new technology and lobbied successfully for federal aid. 

They were, in every sense, the ancestors of Frank Mitchener, Jr. Mitchener owns or manages somewhere between five and ten thousand acres of Delta farmland from the serene comfort of his office. Seventy years ago, such an operation would have entailed supervising an army of tenant farmers. Landowners in the Delta generally employed about five tenant families, each with a team of mules, for every hundred acres of cotton.

Today the tenant farmers are gone. The wooden shacks where those families used to live have vanished from the landscape, but certainly not from the memories of Mitchener and others of his generation. According to the standard telling of this story, technology swept aside the sharecroppers. The mechanical harvester and chemical herbicides, it is said, eliminated the need for human hands to hoe the weeds or pick the cotton. In reality, technology was not so much the driving force as a useful tool in the service of other forces that pulled and pushed tenant farmers out of Mississippi. The process began with New Deal programs that benefited landowners at the expense of sharecroppers. It accelerated when World War II sent young men overseas, creating overnight a shortage of labor in cotton country. Jobs, and the promise of a better life, beckoned in northern cities. Meanwhile, Mississippiís political elite responded to the civil rights movement with a campaign to drive black people out of the state. These historical tides drove demand for the mechanical harvester and not the other way around.

Frank Mitchener is now not so much a supervisor of people as a manager of technology. Like a general gathering his forces, he marshals seeds, equipment, and chemicals in an annual campaign to transform soil, sun, and rain into truckloads of cotton fiber.

The most insidious of Mitchenerís foes are the insects: The tobacco budworm, the tarnished plant bug, aphids and weevils. Twice a week during the cotton growing season, Mitchener hires an expert to inspect his fields for insects. At the first sign of infestation, Mitchener calls in the airborne cavalry. The small airplanes fly low across the fields, then bank high in the sky, turn, dive, and come in again to paint another insect-killing stripe across Mitchenerís land.

Twenty years ago, Mitchener had faced disaster at the hands of the tobacco budworm. The insecticides that heíd been using stopped working. The insects had developed resistance to them. "We could not control worms in 1975 and 1976," he says. "We had terrible harvests those two years." But new chemicals, so-called synthetic pyrethroids, arrived and saved the day. "They were magic," Mitchener says.

In the mid-1990s, Mitchener saw the cycle of history repeating. This time, the synthetic pyrethroids were losing their power. Every year, Mitchener had to spray more often, eating away more of his profits. In the mid-1990s, he spent as much as $140 an acre to fight off insects, and half of that was spent battling the tobacco budworm.

And once again, technology promised an answer. This time it was a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a product of nature and of Monsantoís laboratories. It made cotton plants themselves poisonous to the tobacco budworm.

When Monsanto arrived in the Mississippi Delta, it managed to offend, as well as impress. Cotton growers of the Delta are a proud lot. They are the elite of their society. Many are on friendly terms with congressmen and senators. Yet they found themselves on the receiving end of edicts from Monsanto. The company informed cotton growers that if they wanted to get their hands on Bt cotton, they needed to attend meetings where Monsanto would reveal to them the mysteries of its revolutionary technology. Some cotton growers walked out of those meetings vowing never to buy a Monsanto gene. "They sold it as if we had no choice. That we simply had to buy their product to survive," says one cotton grower

Monsantoís representatives (and Delta and Pine Land) also oversold their product. Some of them told cotton farmers that with Bt cotton, theyíd never have to spray for caterpillars again. As it turned out, this was true for the insect that cotton growers feared most, the tobacco budworm, but it was not true for the cotton bollworm. During 1996 and 1997, cotton growers in some parts of Texas watched in horror as cotton bollworms decimated their fields of Bt cotton. Many of the growers filed lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging false advertising.

Yet many others, including Frank Mitchener, swallowed their pride, made a few mental calculations, and signed up to plant the new crop. Ever since 1996, the first year Bt cotton was available, Mitchener has planted it on 96 percent of his cotton fields.

Mitchener also watched the arrival of Roundup Ready cotton, which proved very popular, and Calgeneís BXN cotton, resistant to the herbicide Buctril. He listened to Monsantoís scientists promise other, even more powerful genes, and he became a believer in the potential of biotechnology. "This may be bigger than the mechanical harvester," he says. He pauses. "It may be."