Housed in an imposing green building, Avon Gin has been a landmark in the small, west Mississippi town of Avon for at least a century. It turns out the gin actually helped win the battle for the town’s name.
“For decades, the gin was called Avon,” says David T. “Buddy” Cochran Sr., the Southern Cotton Ginners Association’s 2009 Ginner of the Year, “but the post office was Pettit, Miss.”
So the same little community had two different names. The depot, since one of its main customers was the gin, picked up the name Avon Depot.
“That situation rocked on for at least 50 years before Avon won out.”
Cochran, a jovial man with striking blue eyes, pronounces the “a” in Avon like “apple” and has been associated with the gin since he was a small boy.
He’s willing to tell the story about how he came to his current position only because he says it reflects well on his God, his family and his employees’ hard work and perseverance through adversity.
“I can remember bringing cotton up here as a kid, when it was privately owned. Somewhere down the line it became a co-op gin.”
The present gin building is the third built on the lot. When it was put up in 1964, “it was considered the most modern and largest gin east of the Mississippi River.”
By the mid-1980s, a series of events led to the gin being foreclosed, foreshadowing more take-over machinations a decade later.
“A group of stockholders — my father was one of them — got involved and bought the gin from the oil mill at the foreclosure sale. They renamed it Avon Gin, Inc.”
Then, in early 1994, a decision was made to shut the gin and sell it. That left Cochran and his farming sons — with some 3,000 acres of cotton — in a tough spot. When they traveled to area gins looking for a slot to gin their cotton, the response wasn’t encouraging.
Even if someone had agreed to take their cotton, “We were at the very bottom of the totem pole. Our cotton would have been some of the last ginned. After that experience — having a pretty good-sized cotton crop and no place to gin it — I put forth a lot more effort to recover and do something.”
After a series of financial agreements and work behind the scenes, Cochran ended up controlling Avon Gin. Despite the late date and threat it would be shut down, the gin remained open and its ginning streak, stretching back nearly 100 years, remained intact.
After that, Cochran began whipping the gin into shape, returning it to prosperity, where it’s been ever since.
That isn’t to say the last couple of years haven’t been tough. As Mid-South cotton acres have dipped, so have gin profits across the Cotton Belt.
“Even on our farmland we’ve backed off cotton acres some — last year we had around 2,000, with the balance in soybeans and wheat. Honestly, it almost felt like we were the only ones in the county with substantial cotton acreage.”
From 1994 through 2006, though, the gin “picked up cotton right along,” Cochran says, “with 2006 the peak year. We ginned about 21,000 bales in 2005 and a bit over 28,000 bales in 2006. Then, grains won out over cotton and the acreage dropped.
“We only ginned 11,000 bales in 2007 and 9,000 bales in 2008.”
Starting in 2007, some growers planted no cotton. As an indication of the times: In 2007/2008, one of their larger gin customers, with 1,500 to 2,000 acres of cotton, planted only 500 acres.”
Hurricane rains in 2008 were also a tough blow.
“In our ginning area, we were shaping up to have one of the best cotton crops we’d seen in a long, long time. It might even have been the best ever.”
But the rains came and ruined that possibility. Over 20 inches fell in August.
“Ike and Gustav were not our friends,” Cochran says. “Some cotton went totally under water and there was a lot of hard-locking. We figure 300-plus pounds per acre was lost. That’s a hammering.”
Cochran is keen to hold down the gin’s dust levels. There are two schools nearby and, to be a good neighbor, “We’ve got to keep the dust down. It’s very important to do no harm, to help folks, and keeping dust down is part of that.”
The level of his concern becomes evident when Cochran is asked about his labor force and he immediately takes a long pause and dabs at his eyes.
“We have one of the most unique situations around. God has been good to us and has blessed us with the people here.”
A few years ago, when the Spanish language barrier proved too difficult to overcome, Cochran spread the word locally that gin work would be available in 12-hour shifts (the gin is closed on Sundays). He wasn’t expecting great results.
To his surprise, dependable, hard-working men began showing up at the gin’s door.
“Most of the local employees — probably 95 percent — are retirees. They’ve worked here for two or three years. They like the overtime and short season. It allows them to rejuvenate their bank accounts and make a bit of extra money just before Christmas.”
There has been almost no turnover with the crew.
“It just kind of happened, bringing them in — God intervened. We put the word out that jobs might be available and here they came. Come to find out, there was a good group of retirees to draw from.
“We run a crew of 12 or so, and we’re very safety-conscious. They might get sick of hearing, ‘Safety begins with you, not someone else.’ But if everyone takes responsibility, the chances for an accident diminish.”
Every year before gin season cranks up, “As soon as we get a full crew, we take a few minutes and dedicate the season and ask the good Lord to protect and watch over us. We want to acknowledge we wouldn’t be here without Him.”
Cochran insists divine intervention was again evident when, four or five years ago, the gin manager position came open. Describing the process of bringing Charlie Jennings aboard, he tears up again.
“Charlie had been working with Lummus at the Greenville, Miss., parts house. I got to asking about him — and God was with me through the whole process. He put Charlie in the path. I knew his grandfather, Howard, and mother, Anne. Howard is a retired, long-time ginner, who was at the game for 35 or 40 years and knows the business backward and forward.”
Charlie, still not yet 30 years old, was “entirely capable but a little green at ginning,” Cochran says. “Howard told me, ‘If you’ll hire Charlie, I’ll be there at the gin to make sure he’s doing it right. I’ll hold his hand until he’s up and running.’”
True to his word, “Howard is here every day as Charlie has learned and grown as a ginner. He’s well on his way to being a heck of a ginner. I hope he’ll stay at Avon Gin forever.”
There are only two things that have kept Avon Gin in business and successful, says Cochran — “God and lots of hard work. Those are the primary ingredients.
“I made one promise when we started this venture in the mid-1990s: We’d never tell a farmer we couldn’t gin his crop. I’ve been in that position with a cotton crop, and no place to gin it. It’s a terrible feeling and I won’t put anyone in that same spot. If cotton acreage comes back, that may mean we’ll be ginning into January — but so be it.”