Early machine-picked cotton ‘awful’When the first machine-picked cotton began to show up at his gin, he says it was awful. Over the years the efficiency of machine pickers has improved greatly and more current innovations like cotton modules and now the round bales from on-board module builders have greatly improved the quality of machine picked-cotton, he adds.

The North Carolina ginner says up to about 20 years ago, 100 percent of the cotton he ginned went directly to North Carolina or Virginia cotton mills. Now, virtually all of it goes to foreign markets, most to China.

“Where our cotton ends up has been a big change during my time in the ginning business,” he says.

During his 50 years of running the gin, Bell has seen his share of the bad side of running a minority owned business in a majority controlled market. Twice, he says, he had opportunities to significantly increase his gin business and modernize it, only to be turned down because of his race.

In 1968, he had a chance to modernize his gin, but needed a $121,000 FHA (now FSA) loan, which he didn’t get. Again in 1974, he needed $80,000 to buy a nearby gin and 40 acres of land. Again, despite being a successful multi-generation cotton gin owner, with plenty of business experience and financial security to justify the loan, it didn’t happen.

Rather than dwelling on shortcomings of the past, Bell is steadfastly determined to live in the now and plan for the future. He says his brother and his brother’s son will likely take over management of the gin when he can longer do so.

“The gin for me has been a lifetime investment. I’ve had to build it piece by piece, using profits from to year to improve it the next year. I couldn’t bear to turn it over to someone outside the family or to see it mismanaged,” he says