When he was a boy, Robert Royal recalls, the cotton gin was a big part of the tiny town of Midnight, Miss., not far from the Humphreys County family farm where he grew up.

“In the fall, I’d tag along with my father when he took our cotton to the gin,” he says. “It was a beehive of activity, with all the trailers full of cotton, and it was both great fun and a bit scary for a youngster. My  ‘job’ was to help my father hook and unhook trailers from his truck. I couldn’t have imagined one day I’d be running the gin.”

For Robert, vice-president and general manager of Midnight Gin and incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, becoming a ginner was something of a baptism under fire.

Following a post-college stint in the Chicago futures trading pits, he had returned to Mississippi to start a brokerage business and to farm with his father.

He remembers well the day in 2001 that Peter Hairston, president of the gin corporation, “said he wanted to begin relinquishing his responsibilities and asked me to be his replacement. Peter’s a great guy, and I really couldn’t say no to him.

“That was the year everybody was growing cotton,” Robert says, “and I started my Midnight Gin career with the biggest crop that had ever been ginned here — 32,000 bales. On top of that, the gin manager announced that he was planning to move away, so I had to hire a new manager.

“Then we had a wet fall, which slowed ginning of that huge crop, with a lot of choke-ups and a lot of rotten seed. But I survived it, and we learned that the gin could comfortably handle that kind of volume.”

Prior to the ginning season, Robert had enrolled in the summer ginning school at the USDA Cotton Ginning Laboratory at Stoneville, Miss., and later went on to complete the three-year ginner certification program.

“I learned that a ginner needs a lot of skills — from customer relations to engineering to labor management to equipment maintenance, and on and on. Add to those a knack for solving problems and a fair amount of old-fashioned horse sense.”

Since that record year, cotton acreage in the area has declined, with a low point for the gin in 2010 of only 5,000 bales. The 2012 season was a bit better, with 11,200 bales.

That meant an abbreviated ginning season. “We were caught up with the early-harvested cotton by about Nov. 10, and operated on an as-needed basis after that,” Robert says. “A couple of our farmers had a late crop, so we were ginning some of that cotton into late November. We ran our last bale Nov. 26.

“Last year was particularly interesting, in that we received cotton picked on all picker row configurations: 1-row, 2-row, 4-row, 5-row, 6-row, and 6-row round baler. All our farmers had good yields and good grades.

“For most of our customers, cotton is now a minor crop — probably less than half the acres as when cotton was king — and I expect acreage will be down even more next year. But we have a core of good cotton growers, we do a quality job of ginning, and we’ve been paying good rebates, even during the downturn.

“Although forecasts for cotton in 2013 aren’t all that bright, given world stocks and lagging demand, I think we’ll still have enough acreage to run the gin this year. I just want to be able to weather the downturn and still be here, ready to gin, when cotton turns back up, as it eventually will.