A Fork in the Road Podcast: Southern Drawl Cotton
Rely on your everyday experts. Follow your grandmama's chocolate cookie recipe, do what your doctor says, and find a mechanic you trust. And when a multi-generation cotton farmer puts his stamp of approval on cotton sheets, rest assured that he knows a thing or two. On this episode of the Fork in the Road podcast, David is talking to the farmers at Southern Drawl Cotton.
Brian Ponder: We like to say they're Georgia grown, Georgia sewn. They are a true American product. Everything about the product is American.
David Zelski: We spend one third of our lives sleeping, or at least attempting to do so. For the average person, that equates to 229,961 hours in the bed. If you're going to be sleeping that much over your lifetime, you probably need good sheets. And to make good sheets. You need good cotton. So where do they grow good cotton? South Georgia.
Theme Song: I came from the mud, there's dirt on my hands. Strong like a tree, there's roots where I stand.
David Zelski: I'm David Zelski and this is the Fork in the Road podcast, featuring stories from Georgia's farmers, fishermen, merchants, artisans, chefs and others who helped provide Georgia-grown products to folks in the Peach State and beyond. Today, we're traveling southwest of Tifton to Omega, Ga. Population: 1348. According to the slogan on the official Omega Georgia Facebook page. "It's a one red light town in south Georgia, one of the best places on Earth." And Omega is home to Southern Drawl Cotton.
Michael Brooks: So we figured if we were going to have to be expensive being all made here in the U.S., we'd better make the best product that we could with the cotton we're growing.
David Zelski: That's the manager of Southern Drawl. And that is an interesting point, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's take a step back. We need to know about the cotton and what makes it so unique. And then we need to know about the process of going from field to fabric. Let's talk to Brian Ponder.
Brian Ponder: We knew from the start we were not going to make a Wal-Mart sheet. No offense to Wal Mart. We were not going to make a cheap sheet. We had a consultant that we talked to and I wanted to know how can we make the sheet this better than anybody else's? He said that no one had ever made a 100% combed cotton sheet. So the comb cotton process, it takes a lot more cotton to make our sheets than the normal sheets that you would buy, but they're a lot softer and we knew that's what we wanted to do. We wanted to make the best possible sheet that we could out of our cotton right here in South Georgia and be able to sell it to a consumer and have a product that we could be proud to sell and know that — and we like for those people to know that when they buy one of our products, they're buying it from the men and women who are out there driving the tractors and the pickers and working on the irrigation systems and pulling the weeds and that sort of thing. They're buying them directly from them. There's no middleman. So we've tried our best to just cut all of the middlemen out.
David Zelski: What is combed cotton? Here's a short explanation from Sciencing.com. Combed cotton is softer than regular cotton because it doesn't have any impurities or short protruding threads, and it is stronger than regular cotton because the combing process removes the short fibers which are prone to breakage. After combing, the straightened fibers join together more tightly, leading to less fraying and unraveling. And these benefits, plus the additional work required during the manufacturing process, makes combed cotton more expensive and luxurious than regular cotton. Well, there you go. You're supposed to learn something new every day, right?
Brian Ponder: Southern Drawl Cotton is a group of nine family farms went together to try to add some value to the cotton that we were growing. We thought we had to do something better than making bales of cotton and putting them on a ship in the port of Savannah and sending them to India and Pakistan and China and then having them send them back as high priced shirts and sheets and whatnot. So we got in the sheet business and what you see behind me is Omega Gin. I'm right here in Omega, Ga. All of our cotton comes through the Omega Gin. This particular gin has been here since 1996, but its history goes way back. It used to be in the town of Omega. It was probably started in the 1940s. The Powell family has owned the gin for most of those years. And then this is the modern-day version of Eli Whitney's invention so many years ago, today, a gin that's spitting out about 50 bales of cotton an hour right here in South Georgia.
David Zelski: We learned all about Eli Whitney and his cotton gin in school. So is Omega Gin the same thing?
Brian Ponder: Basically, the cotton gin is very similar to the mechanic — mechanical pickers that you see today. They all work the same as they did 50 years ago. They're just a lot faster. Everything is faster, It's more efficient. Everything is sped up. Eli Whitney was probably producing a bale a week where this was producing 50 bales an hour. That's the difference. And cotton picking has gone the same way; we went from handpicking to the first cotton pickers that would probably pick eight or 10 bales a day to now there's some of these pickers will pick 200 bales a day without any trouble, 200 to 250 bales a day.
David Zelski: What is so great about this Georgia cotton?
Brian Ponder: Well, we try to grow the finest cotton that we can right in this area and our coastal plains. A sandy loam that we have here is ideal for our cotton. We have frequent rainfall and we do a lot of supplemental irrigation so we can grow some really good quality cotton here. And it just — and it pairs so well with our peanut crop that comes from here. 55% of the peanuts used in the United States come from an 80-mile radius of where we're standing right now and the cotton production matches so well with the rotation for our peanuts. So it just makes it a great fit for this area.
David Zelski: But there must be challenges.
Brian Ponder: Well, you're always dealing with the weather. You always dealing with Mother Nature. You're dealing with the prices of, you know, who would ever thought a year ago that we would see a price tumble because of a pandemic. I mean, that was — I'm in my 36th crop of cotton and I thought I'd seen it all. Nah, I hadn't seen it all. If I live to make 72 crops of cotton, but I wouldn't see it all. Every year is different, every crop's different. What you do one year works really well. If you duplicate it the next year you'll flop. So you've got to be ready to adapt. You've got to be ready to change; we make changes and adapt technology so that we can continue to stay competitive. 36 years ago, I was growing cotton, selling it for $0.64 to $0.65, $0.66 a pound. 36 years later, our cotton market today is $0.68 a pound. The bag of cotton seed that I planted 36 years ago cost $25 a bag. The bag of cotton seed today is over $600. So we had to become more and more efficient and we've got to continue to do that if we're going to continue to stay in business and continue to stay in the cotton business or any of the farming type business that we're in here.
David Zelski: Farming is an expensive endeavor, and selling sheets for a premium price is a gamble. Earlier in the podcast, we heard from Michael Brooks, the manager of Southern Drawl. Remember when he said this?
Michael Brooks: So we figured if we were going to have to be expensive being all made here in the U.S., we'd better make the best product that we could with the cotton that we're growing. And we're very proud of that. Hopefully everybody that's got our products feel the same way.
David Zelski: That makes a little more sense now, doesn't it?
Michael Brooks: Everybody this involves is either friends or family, and we just try to keep it that way and we're trying to bring part of our farms into your home and we're proud of what we got and what we're making. I come up with the idea probably 15 years ago. I sat on the regional board on trying to get more farm gate value back to the farms. This was an idea that come up because a lot of the textile mills here in Georgia were going out and we, uh, we looked at trying to see if it was feasible to buy a plant and get it through. But the way it all worked out, God's timing is always perfect. And so we looked at having retail stores and it just we couldn't see where that was feasible at the time. And once online sales started going, a lot of stores, then it opened up that avenue for us. And so we've been we've been fortunate and really excited about about the future of Southern Drawl. So I went to cotton school in '95 and I used to merchandise cotton down here in the South and had a relationship with some of the mills. One of the mills that actually does our spinning and weaving, I went to cotton school with one of the guys in that family, and it's just ironic that all can come back together, but we try to have as much of this process done in Georgia as close to home as we can. And they're cut and sewn here in Georgia as well. And so the cotton is grown here and then it's finished here. It's shipped out from here. Now, our towels are made right in Middle Georgia. And so they're spun. But we're we're really proud and we're really proud of the products we have. And we hope that we bring a lot of quality into the products that they get. And we have a particular grower, Brian Ponder. He calls every person that buys a set of sheets or towels or candles or whatever it is just to check up and make sure that they're satisfied with the products that they have.
David Zelski: Field to fabric.
Michael Brooks: Field to fabric.
David Zelski: I like Michael and his outlook on the company and the business and the Brian that he mentioned is the same Brian we've been talking to. To hear more about how Southern Drawl creates its products, let's get back to him at the gin.
Brian Ponder: Well, we pick the cotton right here in Tift, Colquitt, Cook, or Berrien counties. That's where all of our sheet cotton comes from. That's where our nine families represent. That's where our farming operations are at. It comes through the Omega Gin. Out of those approximately 20,000 to 25,000 bales that all of us produce together, we use a very micro percentage amount of that to make our sheets. And the reason is we are using the very finest cotton that we produce. Some of our producers may produce 3,000 to 4,000 bales in a year, but we only use three or four of those bales because we're picking the finest cotton that we can. That cotton goes to the mills. It's spun, it's woven into material. It goes through the combing process and then right there in Cornelia, Ga., right there north of Gainesville, we we cut and sew these sheets together and we like to say they're Georgia grown, Georgia sewn. The box they come to you in is from Milledgeville, Ga. So they are they are a true American product. Everything about the product is American. Whether we you buy one of our rope draw sheets or the standard elastic sheet. I had the question here a while back, "Where did your elastic come from?" Our elastic comes from Ohio.
David Zelski: Awe, Brian sounds so dejected over the elastic being from Ohio.
Brian Ponder: Our elastic comes from Ohio.
David Zelski: Why do they get the elastic from Ohio? Well, it has to do with what it technically means when something is Made in the USA and Southern Drawl's label of Field to Fabric.
Michael Brooks: Field to Fabric that's us, all the way. And I'll tell you the reason for that. A lot of products that have "Made in the USA" or cotton U.S.A. Cotton, that doesn't mean that the products were made here in the USA. I know it sounds crazy, but it can either mean the cotton — The USA Cotton — The cotton was grown here, but the whole the rest of it, as far as the spinning and making it into sheets or clothes, they could be done overseas. Having the "Made in the USA" label, it only has to have a certain percentage, which is over 50%. But they actually go through how much of it was spun, the labor hours for that, or it's made and the weaving. And we just wanted to make sure that we we had a line that says this whole product was grown here on U.S. soil and went all the way through. Even our boxes are made here. Tissue, the ribbon paper, everything that we've done is made here in the United States, and we're very, very proud of that.
David Zelski: Okay, Michael, let's take a peek at the actual product.
Michael Brooks: Well, I went I went back and got a box. So this is — this is how it kind of comes. We're proud of our box and the way it way it happens. This tells you a little bit about the sheets and kind of our warranty and how to handle it. And every one of — every one of our products, as far as the sheets go, you'll get a card in it and it'll tell you what farmer, what farm that cotton represents that it comes off of. And this particular set has got a — has got the rope draw as a fitted sheet. So where you can get it both ways, we, we have an elastic sheet for fitted and we have the rope draw and so it just — I was a marketing major and you always try to tie some kind of niche. And I'll show you, I got another box opened over here. This is a, this is our rope draw. So the first time you use it, you'll actually come through and pull these to even it up. There's a space that'll be on the side that allow you to adjust, and then after you use that, you just pull it in and once you get it tight, you lock it in and that locks it down. So we just we we've got to get our own little plastic clip that we have made just for the sheets. But it's 100% cotton rope, 100% combed cotton in the sheets. This particular sheet has got the rope draw, but it's our all-natural. So there's no caustic material used in in finishing this sheet. It's just basically been sanitized. And because we — we use 100% combed cotton, we — it's almost pure. But you can see where you may see just a little bit of defects in it as far as leaf or something that's in the material and it'll wash out after the first or second time that you wash it. But it's as — it's as natural as you can possibly get. So people that are worried about saving the environment and that kind of stuff, it's hard to make a sheet any any more environmentally friendly than this. And so we're really proud of that.
David Zelski: That draw string keeps it from slipping off the bed.
Michael Brooks: If it comes off your bed, I'm telling you, you you've worked really hard at night to make it happen. That's right.
David Zelski: Yes, there's a joke there, but I'm going to ignore it because I'm a trained broadcast professional, right? Now, the only thing I really know about sheets is thread count.
Brian Ponder: We don't bother with thread count. We will put our sheets up against anyone as far as the weight of our sheets per square foot. Nobody's got a got a sheet that is as heavy and as nice as what our sheet is and I'll challenge anybody to that.
David Zelski: That right there is confidence and a strong belief in their system. And do you think it was easy for a group of cotton farmers to just move in to making and selling a finished product?
Brian Ponder: The sheet business has been a challenge for us because the nine families, we're farmers. I mean, we're generational farmers, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation farmers and we know how to grow a crop. We know how to deal with hurricanes. We know how to deal with adversity. But producing a product and putting it in someone's —a finished product and putting it in their hands. It's been a learning process. We've had to learn where to advertise. We've had to learn where not to advertise. We've learned about price. We've had to learn about the supply chain. One of the biggest shocks to me is when you're trying to do something, people don't always do things on a timely manner when they tell you they're going to do it. And for us as farmers, that's been tough because if we get a worm or we get an infestation or any kind of insects on our cotton or peanuts or any of our crops, the next day we're spraying, we're getting rid of them, we're solving the problem. If we need more water, we get more water there before we go home at night. And it just — it really bothers us that we can't get things through the process. But I know that's normal, but it's a shock to us. So that's been a real challenge. We had to overcome that and realize it and be patient and farmers sometimes are not patient. We don't have a lot of patience. When things need to be done. We want to do them. We want to see it get done. And so it's been kind of tough there, but it's been a learning experience and we have had a lot of fun. And I tell people, I don't know if we'll ever make any money with it, but we have learned a lot and we've met a lot of good people along the way.
David Zelski: You know, there's really something special in doing business with down-home regular folks. And Brian likes to go one step further.
Brian Ponder: I personally call everybody that buys a set of sheets. A lot of people wouldn't believe that. But I make an effort to call them to just say thank you, because I want people to know how much we appreciate them. They can buy sheets anywhere, but they chose to buy them from us. And they're they're shocked that someone would call them and say "thank you" and check on them and make sure that everything's okay. But I tell them we we as Southern Drawl, we want to treat them the way we want to be treated. I mean, we the way we expect to be treated. So we're going to treat our customers the same way. And if something's not right. Oh, we'll — we'll fix it. We'll fix. I had a, you know, a big snafu last year with a man in Texas, and he ordered four sets of sheets and somehow or another in the Christmas rush when everything was so busy, we got his order wrong. And that's going to happen. Well, we talked to him and he says, "you know, I normally give my kids money. I thought this would be a nice gift for 'em, but it's becoming quite a hassle." And I said, I won't call his name, but I said, "you're going to have your sheets for Christmas." I said, "If we had to drive those sheets out there." He said, "I'm in Texas." I said, "I'm promise you, if we got to fly those sheets, we got to drive your sheets, you will have your sheets before Christmas." That man has bought two more sets of sheets for me over the last several years because I reckon these or the last several months. I recognized his name and I've called him back and we've made a he we we try to go above and beyond, but we tried to treat him the way we wanted to be treated and that's the way we want to do everybody.
David Zelski: The man in Texas isn't the only friend Brian has made.
Brian Ponder: I'm not kidding when I say I've made a lot of friends around the country. There's a girl in, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, that I text. We text back and forth nearly every day. I can't talk to her and she can't talk to me because she can't understand me and I can't understand her. But she's a dental hygienist, and when she's cleaning teeth, she's selling sheets for me. Well, we become very good friends for as much of friends as we could. And we're going to go visit her sooner or later. But I took some of these bolls and picked them off and sent them to her. And I told her, I said some of them will be open when they get there. And the ones that are not is put them in your windowsill. You and I opened it and that was fascinating to her. She said it was a big thing every morning to go look at the bolls and see which ones had open and which ones were cracking. And because they will still open, you take one and put it in in your dash of your car and a day or two it'll be open up. The warmer it is, the more to faster it'll open it.
David Zelski: And it's not just sheets, you have something else.
Michael Brooks: We do. So after we were going with the sheets for about a year, we and — we've got different. Before I get off that we've got different natural white and different piping that you can get on the sheets, different options — this is just two piece set of our towels and you can kind of see how they come. They're actually wrapped in plastic inside this box, but you can get a six piece set or just two large towels, but they make really good gifts and we're proud of the packaging and the way that we send it. We've got crib sheet and baby bibs and the burping cloth that will all come in one package. And so we're kind of excited about that, too.
David Zelski: The only thing left to find out is where to buy these Georgia-grown products.
Brian Ponder: SouthernDrawl.com. That's Southern Drawl d r a w l dot com. And we have a website and we'd love to sell some sheets. The drawl. I know we talk kind of slow, but we offer a sheet that has a drawstring on it. And if you ever had any trouble with your sheets popping it off the corners of the mattress. If you pull this drawstring the way we've got it and then pull it tight, they won't come off the mattress any more. You're through with that. So that's where drawl comes from, d r a w l. That's SouthernDrawl.com.
David Zelski: So the next time you're on I-75 driving around Tifton, just know that you are surrounded by cotton fields and farmers producing some of the highest quality cotton sheets that money can buy. And now it's time to snuggle up in the sheets and take a nap, right? And you've got to have a show on in the background, right? Well, you can watch A Fork In The Road on GPB-TV or any time on the GPB.org website. That's where you'll also be able to listen and subscribe to this podcast or download it on your favorite podcast platform. I'm David Zelski. Thanks for listening to A Fork in the Road.
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