Field of Dreams
The fertile fields of McIntosh Farms yield an unlikely harvest for an eighth generation cotton farmer.
Deep in the heart of Williamsburg County, a few miles from the historic city of Kingstree and a mile or so down McIntosh Road, Atwood “At” McIntosh stands in the backyard of his great-great grandfather’s house. In both directions, he looks out over fields that have been at the heart of his family’s business for eight generations. Tobacco barns and farm equipment dot the landscape around the white farmhouse his grandfather built in 1919. “My granddaddy’s granddaddy built that house,” he says, pointing to the two-story house to his left. “Over here,” he says, of the single-story house next door, “is my granddaddy’s house. My mom and dad moved in here when my granddaddy died.”
Reminders of years of toil are carried in the very dust that blows through acres of green rows. The weight of those fields on a young man’s shoulders might be daunting without the vision to see more than dirt and hard work—under a sky that may or may not deliver the rain he needs to turn them into something more. But while McIntosh feels the responsibility of the past, he is determined to carry his tradition into the future.
The high-quality cotton shirts produced by Homegrown Cotton, the company McIntosh formed in the summer of 2014, are proof that he has thought far beyond these fields. The classic, understated design of the soft polo shirts sewn just down the road, is universal in its appeal and is fully traceable to the field here on the family’s farm where the shirts are “grown.”
At a meeting with other local growers, McIntosh was struck with the realization that there was not a single shirt made of American cotton being worn among those assembled. It was a watershed moment, and the idea that the very people dependent on the crop’s future had few choices when it came to using the final product seemed counterintuitive, at best.
While once a mainstay for farmers here, with the days of cotton’s reign as king long passed, McIntosh recognized that without a shot of innovation, the industry’s days might be numbered in this rural community. He gave the problem deep thought and came to the conclusion it was time for a unique, quality product that used 100% South Carolina-grown cotton. It was also important to him that the benefits go far beyond those of his company alone.
Not one to waste words, McIntosh measures and doles out thoughts with great care. Long-time friend, Tom Thompson says of the quiet 35-year-old: “At doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does, you can take whatever he says as gospel.” So, it came as no surprise to those who know him well that he would quite literally grow his thought into a reality.
Though the concept seemed simple, McIntosh’s MBA from Francis Marion University was put to good use when creating a business plan to produce the cotton and incorporate the different processes required for a finished product. Though he is the sole owner of the company, he credits friends in the tight-knit community for helping to get the idea off the ground. “All my friends and family have been a tremendous help. Everybody knew somebody or something that helped me out,” he says.
To understand the full extent and economic importance of the project, one must be familiar with the route from seed, to leafy green plant, to the fabric of the South. “There are a lot of steps that go into producing the finished shirts, and I wanted everyone involved in the various steps to be helped along the way,” he says.
It takes approximately 160 frost free days to grow cotton from seed to harvest. The planted seed pushes upward and adds leaves for an average of six weeks until flower buds appear. These will open as attractive, creamy-white flowers, which will change in three days to a pinkish-red color. As this flower withers, cotton fibers begin to grow in the pod. Long celebrated in song, this is known as the cotton boll. In this boll, the fibers will thicken to about the size of a ping-pong ball. Once defoliated, each plant may bear up to 100 bolls, with each boll producing nearly 500,000 fibers.
Once requiring backbreaking work by many hands, cotton growth and production is today fully mechanized. At this stage, a mechanical cotton picker moves through the rows of plants, removing stems, seeds and any remaining foliage, separating out the cotton fiber which will be compressed into bales and transported to a cotton gin a few miles away in Salters, South Carolina. Although modernized, the mechanical process patented by Eli Whitney in 1794, is still in use today. And though now much less labor intensive, many in this farm community are employed by businesses providing these services.
From here, the cotton must go to a mill in North Carolina—the only part of the process that goes out of state. “There are spinning mills in South Carolina,” he says, “but they only work on a really large scale.” None could handle the small quantity of cotton he needed milled, and his cotton would have gotten lost if mixed into the large batches, which, in turn, would have defeated the purpose of his concept. Once milled, however, the fabric is returned to a shop, where it is then cut and sewn less than forty miles from the farm on which it was grown. All in all, the cotton has traveled 500 miles, a small distance when compared to most materials that make up our wardrobes.
Available online, and at a growing number of retailers throughout the state, the shirts are available in a variety of colors. McIntosh hopes to add a ladies line at some point. Each shirt carries a tag with South Carolina prominently featured, and a cotton boll marking McIntosh Farms’ location on the map. Each tag also tells the company’s story. He has yet to name the fields with specific names, but as the business grows, that detail may allow future buyers to seek out a particular field among the many producing the company’s products.
Stopping on a rutted dirt track beside one of the many fields planted throughout McIntosh Farm’s 1,000 acres, McIntosh points out that this is the very field where the latest batch of shirts “grown and sewn” in South Carolina wait for the plants to yield the white tufts from which their fabric will be spun. On the far edge, a chimney stands as the solitary remains of the family’s original home—what he refers to as “the big house.” McIntosh laughs when asked what he calls the current field. “Well, for now, we call it the field in front of the big house.”
About three miles down the road, a Revolutionary-era cemetery holding the remains of a sixteen-year-old McIntosh ancestor willing to fight and die for this very land, helps one better understand At McIntosh’s motivation to continue following the rituals of plowing, planting and harvesting a living from the cotton produced here. Two and a half centuries later, with his thoughtful care and constant nurturing, the roots that began deep in the soil of Williamsburg County are sure to bring him a bountiful harvest.
By Jana Riley