By Marlee Jackson
The steady rumble of ginning cotton accompanied a flurry of activity as Milstead Farm Group started its season Oct. 19.
It was business as usual — and a modern miracle, considering a tornado tore through the gin seven months earlier.
“Failure was not an option,” said Milstead Farm Group President Shep Morris. “Our customer base has really been pulling for us.”
The Shorter facility annually gins 50,000-60,000 bales. It’s a critical hub for farmers across central Alabama, said Morris.
The Macon County farmer lives just two miles from the gin and heard the storm as it ripped across the region March 27 at 2:57 a.m. He checked in with family (son Shep Morris Jr. lives a mile from the gin and was OK, minus needing a new roof) before calling Milstead Farm Group Manager Joey Scarborough, who lives in nearby Tallassee.
Downed, hot power lines prevented Morris and Scarborough from crossing the railroad to check out the gin. They shined a spotlight across the pavement and brush, expecting minor damage.
The gin was crumpled.
Steel beams were torn from the ground, walls were down, ductwork was smashed, and metal roofing was mangled.
But there was hope. The three gin stands, which separate fiber from seed, were intact. So was the press — and an unexpected item.
“In the men’s break room, there was a picture of Jesus on a shelf,” Morris said. “On both ends, steel beams were ripped out of the concrete. The shelf with Jesus was fine.”
Just two weeks earlier, eight H-2A guest workers frequented that break room while cleaning post-season. Scarborough said the storm timing was a windfall.
“If it was going to happen, it happened at the best time,” he said. “No one was here. If it happened later, it would have been even harder to get up and running.”
The gin’s executive committee met at 5 p.m. the day of the storm to plot a path forward. Within days, farmer-customers received a letter saying the gin would function that fall — a bold but believable goal made possible by a series of blessings, Morris said.
These included visiting Doerun, Georgia, where a gin was rebuilding after a similar storm in December.
Another blessing came when three critical motor control centers (MCCs) Milstead needed were found in Arkansas, where funding had fallen through for a project that had already received the MCCs. There’s usually an 18-month wait time.
Companies from India to Clanton, Florence and Salem, Alabama, fabricated parts for the gin, which invested in updates to increase efficiency, including the burner system, electrical controls, operating system and an extended, enclosed loading dock.
While workers smoothed a few expected kinks once ginning began Oct. 19, the gin was rolling by November.
“Last year, we ginned a thousand bales before the first of November,” Scarborough said. “This year, it’s been a little more than that. We’d have loved to start sooner, but all things considered, we’re very happy.”