If you’ve ever heard Gary Vessels talk about cotton, you know what a passion for your work sounds like. Vessels, who lives in Miami, is a cotton broker and has been in the cotton business for 44 years. He will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about cotton, from how Napoleon spurred the cotton industry in Western Europe to how many strands of lint there are in a cotton boll.
He got his start in the business when he was a student at Phoenix College, looking for a temporary job. He answered an ad: Wanted: big, husky warehouseman. Gary says, “I’ve always been a hard worker. I’m probably the only person that realized a broom did not come with an electric cord. There were two other people from Phoenix College that answered the ad. One lasted a month, one lasted a week, I lasted 22 years.”
That company soon hired Gary full-time to manage their “cotton room” while he was still a junior in college. They paid for him to finish his degree in English literature at ASU. Gary had started college with the intention of becoming an English teacher, but cotton took hold of him and never let go.
“I became what’s called a takeup man,” Gary says. “I go on site and look at every cotton sample and make sure it fits the contract.”
Gary’s work has taken him around the world. For the past 22 years, he has worked for a Swiss mill, frequently traveling to meet with his colleagues in Switzerland. He also usually spends several months every year in Australia, marketing and classifying cotton there. After two decades of visits Down Under, his speech is peppered with Australian words and idioms, he tends to call strangers “mate,” and he wears a wide-brimmed, Aussie-style hat.
At the end of last August, Gary paid a visit to the San Joaquin valley in California to check on the crop there. He makes the trip every year.
“I’ll try to get there just before harvest,” he says. “There’ll be blooms, there’ll be cotton fiber. I’ll go in the fields and step off feet and try to see how much yield the plants may have. Does it have insects in there? I’ll count the seeds.” He assesses the crop’s value and might make purchasing decisions. Often, though, his company already signed a contract with the grower at planting time. “We take the risk, and we support the grower,” he says. “It gives them money, seed capital you might say, and we hope that the crop is going to be to our specifications.”
One question Gary gets a lot is about the trucks carrying cotton that are seen passing through Globe-Miami. He says those trucks are each carrying about 85 to 90 bales of cotton, generally coming from Safford and going to Picacho or Phoenix for storage, or coming from the West Coast on their way to the Far East.
If you’ve visited Safford in the fall, you’ve probably seen the fields white with cotton or the drifts of fiber along the roadsides after harvest. Safford has two gins – processing facilities that separate the seed from the fiber, called lint. About 12,000 acres of cotton were grown in the Safford area this year.
Historically, cotton was one of the “5 C’s” that built Arizona’s economy, along with copper, cattle, citrus, and the climate. Gary says Arizona currently has about 165,000 acres in cotton, which is only ten percent of what it used to be. He remembers that, back in the 70s, when he started in the business, there were more than a million acres in cotton in Arizona. Factors like China’s increasing cotton industry, dwindling water supplies, and increasing population in the state have caused losses in cotton production here.
Another factor that damaged the industry in Arizona was a problem called honey dew.
“Honey dew is from white fly and aphids,” Gary explains. “They secrete a honey dew that allows their egg sacs to cling to the underside of the cotton leaves.” The dew creates a problem called sticky cotton, and if sticky cotton gets into a mill, it can gum up the mill and stop production. The machines have to be taken apart and cleaned. “It’s a very severe problem,” Gary says, explaining that mills will blacklist farming areas that produce sticky cotton. This happened in the 1980s in Arizona, and our cotton industry has never fully recovered.
Down in Safford, Gary steps over an irrigation ditch and plunges into a cotton field, crouching down to inspect the plants and almost nuzzling them with affection. He breaks off a boll and hands it to me. The boll has three sections, and the fibers are luxuriously soft, with a beautiful off-white color. I can hardly resist brushing it against my cheek, it’s so soft.
Pima cotton was developed around 1910 by members of the Pima tribe at an experimental farm in Sacaton, Arizona. Breeders were looking for a hybrid that would grow well in this climate and produce long, silky fibers.
Gary purchases only Pima cotton for his mill, which is an extra-long staple variety, used for luxury fabrics with high thread counts, such as lingerie, fine bedding, and Italian shirting.
As an expert in classifying cotton, Gary was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to serve on the national Universal Standards Committee, which sets and maintains standards for cotton that are used around the world. Cotton is classified with a number system, where, for example, 31 is “middling,” 41 is “strict low middling,” and somewhere around 40 is “fair to middling.” If you’ve heard the phrase “fair to middling,” that’s where it came from – the old English system of cotton classification.
After talking for an hour or two or three about cotton with Gary, it’s obvious that his passion for the subject has not faded in 44 years. But he will tell you he’s looking forward to retiring and pursuing some of his other interests, such as learning Spanish.
But that’s not all. “I’m a folk architect, too,” he says.
To find out what that means, you have to visit his warehouse-turned-home on Sullivan Street in Miami. Doing all the work himself, including carpentry, masonry, and welding, Gary has refashioned a building that used to be an auto dealership into a lovely, comfortable home full of character and surprises.
Gary reuses, recycles, and repurposes antique and vintage materials. He’s constructed walls and floors from rescued wood and built a huge central fireplace from salvaged brick. His home is decorated with all sorts of found and collected objects – from Old West memorabilia to souvenirs from Australia.
Gary also makes metal gates and shutters. He’s most proud of a large gate that divides his garden from Sullivan Street. “It almost looks like the Yuma Territorial Prison gates,” he says. He calls it The Last Stand.