Carl Seeliger is what a lot of folks call a “crusty character.”At 82, Carl doesn’t hesitate to say what he thinks, and he does things his way. Generally speaking, that tends to turn out pretty well. That just might be why he’s fearless when it comes to trying new things, or taking on monumental projects.
New things such as growing cotton in Kansas, for example. Or monumental projects like dismantling an old Oklahoma cotton gin, hauling the pieces truckload by truckload to Kansas — and then reassembling them “with a few modifications” and actually getting the gin to work.
“There’s no doubt that Carl Seeliger is the heart and soul of Kansas cotton,” says Gary Feist, manager of the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Association gin at Winfield — the same one that Carl, his son, Mike, and a handful of neighbors put together in 1996. “The Kansas cotton industry and this gin are his legacy to Kansas.”
Feist says the story of the gin assembly astonishes him, because he is very familiar with how cranky cotton gins can be.
“Sometimes you just shut it down overnight and it’s hard to get everything running again, and that is in a well-maintained gin. To disassemble something shut down for years, haul it across the country and put it back together, and have it work is astonishing.”
• Carl Seeliger is honored for his leadership in cotton.
• The Cowley County farmer is known for his mechanical aptitude.
• The industry grew from Seeliger’s faith and persistence.
At its September annual meeting, the SKCGA presented Carl with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first given by the organization, recognizing his leadership and endless effort to promote cotton in Kansas.
In typical fashion, Carl was seated as close as he could get to the back of the room. He was clearly as surprised, as Feist and other instigators of the award had hoped he’d be. But he was not at a loss for words: He stood up and began to talk about his first experience growing cotton.
When Dick Cooper, manager of the Plains Cotton Cooperative warehouse at Liberal, tried to coax him to the front of the room, Carl stood firm. “I’m fine right here,” he said, and went right on talking. It wasn’t until a representative of Gov. Sam Brownback stepped up to offer a framed letter of congratulations from the governor that Carl was coaxed to come to the front of the room.
It began with a brochure
Carl Seeliger’s path from mostly wheat farmer to cotton fan started in 1985.
He was not the first Kansan to grow cotton. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pioneers may have tried it in Sumner County in the 1880s. And in the 20th century, the distinction of being first goes to Sterling native Charlie Gilmore who took a chance on planting some cottonseed given to him during a visit to Texas.
Gilmore’s path crossed Carl’s at the Kansas State Fair in 1985, when Gilmore contracted for a booth to promote cotton production in Kansas. Carl picked up a brochure at the booth.
Gilmore had outlined the potential profit to be made growing cotton. Carl was impressed, but skeptical. He gave the brochure to his son, Mike, asking him to see where the numbers were wrong.
“Well, Mike couldn’t disprove them either, so I looked at him and I asked ‘Well, do you have the guts to try it?’ ”
In 1986, the Seeligers planted a few small fields to cotton.
“Mostly, we picked places that were way back out of sight, just in case it didn’t go so well,” Carl recalls. “We had one field up on a township road — and it wasn’t long before I had people asking me what kind of beans I planted in that field. I just told them I was trying something new.”
When the cotton bolls began to open, Carl was amused that his visits to the local co-op meant regularly finding pieces of cotton bolls on the dashboards of his neighbors’ pickup trucks.
“That first year, we didn’t have much idea what we were doing,” Carl says. “We let the freeze kill it and waited for it to dry down, and we took it up to Sterling to Charlie’s gin. But when we finally finished harvest and we ran the numbers, we realized that acre for acre, we netted more money on cotton than we grossed on wheat. And the next year we planted more cotton.”
When Carl told his neighbor, Don Morton, about his success growing cotton, Morton decided to try his hand at it. Soon, David Ray and his brother, Martin, tried a few acres. Then Mike Thompson and Bruce Ehmke and Ken Kelly joined the cotton growers in Kansas.
Time for a gin
As the cotton acreage grew, it became obvious that more infrastructure was needed.
The gin at Sterling wasn’t sufficient for the task; the Seeligers and their neighbors had been hauling modules to a gin in Yukon, Okla., 186 miles away. That gin was small, and local production around it scant. Soon, Seeliger cotton was 60% of the business of the gin, David Ray recalls.
“Dad would load up a module and drive down there, timing it to get there just as they opened,” Mike Seeliger says. “It meant being on the road for seven or eight hours every other day. We knew what we really needed was a gin close to home.”
So Carl went shopping.
He found something he thought could be modified to work for Kansas growers: a defunct gin in western Oklahoma.
David Ray recalls going down to look at the gin and talk to the owners about selling it. Carl insisted that the region’s growers form a cooperative to jointly own the gin.
“There were folks pressuring me to make it a private gin,” Carl says. “But I says, ‘No, it will be a co-op or it won’t be. I’m not doing this for me. I am doing this for the farmers of Kansas.’ ”
Carl’s way prevailed. A deal was struck, and Carl hired a team of workers to disassemble the gin. He and son Mike took their farm trucks, hired a couple of local truckers to help haul and went to Oklahoma to pick up the pieces. They hauled them back to Kansas and began reassembly.
Later, Carl would say that hiring the gin disassembled was a mistake. “We should have taken it apart ourselves, and we’d have known better how it went back together,” he says.
But Mike Seeliger says that might not have helped. “We didn’t just put it back together the way it was,” he says. “We made a few modifications to improve it along the way.”
David Ray says he remembers a favorite line from Carl during the process: “Somebody invented this thing in the first place. Surely I can figure out how it works.”
Don Morton also remembers helping put the gin together. “Carl called just about everybody he thought might help. He was there working every single day. A gin is just a crazy project. It’s like hooking five combines together, and they all have to work in perfect timing; and if a cotter pin falls out anywhere, the whole thing goes down.
“I thought I had to be crazy to agree to this, but I had cotton in the field, and I knew if anybody could do it, it was Carl,” he says.
His faith sprang from the projects he knew the Seeligers had already accomplished. “They made a module hauler by taking the sleeper out a regular semi, cutting the frame apart and attaching a module bed to a new double frame,” Morton says. “And they built a boll buggy from scrap metal. Carl is just one of the naturally best mechanical minds I’ve ever known.”
Morton recalls that they started gin assembly in earnest when they hauled up the last pieces in October.
“We started with a concrete slab and by the end of the year, we were ginning cotton. We weren’t very fast, and we broke down a lot. But I was there to see the first bale come out of the presser — and it was quite the celebration.”
More cotton, more confidence
In the 16 years since the gin was completed, the cotton industry has grown — just as Carl Seeliger knew it would. Kansas now has four gins: the still-operating one at Winfield in Cowley County, another at Anthony in Harper County, a third at Cullison in Kiowa County and a fourth at Moscow in Stevens County.
In 2012, 55,000 acres of cotton were planted in Kansas. In spite of a second year of extreme heat and drought, about 55,000 acres of cotton will be harvested this fall. “It’s the most drought-tolerant crop I’ve ever seen,” says Morton. “It grows when almost nothing else does.”
As grain prices have skyrocketed in the last few years, cotton has had a tough time competing. This year’s acres were down from 83,000 in 2011.
“When you have soybeans at $17, it is hard to compete for acres,” Morton says. “But the crazy cycles come and go. The grain prices will come back down. And eventually, people will realize that when you harvest something, you still make more money than when you harvest nothing. And year after year, you harvest cotton. Carl taught me that. And Carl’s not wrong very often.”