Don’t tell Bill Hodge that you can’t grow cotton in Iowa.
Like so many other naysayers, he’ll gladly walk you around to the backyard of his Newton home to show you just what he’s been tending to for the past five years: three bushes, planted in a row and dotted with bright, white balls of cotton.
While Hodge has cultivated everything from onions to watermelons in the plot behind his home, cotton holds a place closer to his heart —and his hometown in southeast Missouri.
“We used to raise cotton in the south, and you’d have to go through the fields and pick it by hand,” said Hodge, demonstrating how to harvest the cotton without being cut by the sharp shells of the drying plant.
Hodge moved to Newton in 1963 where he worked at Maytag for 30 years, far from the cotton roots of his past. It was a souvenir boll of cotton sent to Iowa from family down south, though, that renewed his interest in the crop.
“We had a boll of cotton sitting up on the shelf from my brother in North Carolina,” said Bill’s wife, Elsie.
“One day, I decided to take it down and plant the seeds in a few pots and set them by the window,” added Bill.
The plants soon sprouted in the winter sun, and when May rolled around, Bill moved them outside.
“We never thought anything of it until everyone started telling us that you can’t grow cotton in Iowa,” Elsie said with a laugh. “He’s always been the type to want to prove people wrong.”
Cotton is traditionally grown throughout the Cotton Belt, a region spanning the southeastern U.S. where the climate and humidity are ideal for cultivating the crop. Despite Iowa’s cooler weather, Bill alleged that cotton, in essence, is a simple plant to tend to.
“All you need is hot weather and a bit of moisture and it’ll grow,” he said. “Just sun and water, it’s that easy.”
Because Bill first planted the seeds inside, he was able to mimic the longer growing season present in the southern United States and successfully foster a cotton crop.
While the Hodges’ three plants only yield a modest harvest following the first frost every autumn, the handful of dried stalks laced with cotton are just enough to save for the following growing season, with plenty extra for friends who’d like to try their hands at growing a plant or two themselves.
“Everyone always wants to know what we do with it after harvest,” said Elsie, “but we just keep it for the seeds, or for whenever someone wants a boll.”
For Bill, it’s the simple fact that he succeeded in doing exactly what so many told him he couldn’t that gives him the most satisfaction.
“I don’t care who you talk to,” he said, “I’ll prove it to anyone that you can grow cotton in Iowa.”
Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.