Growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina, a boy experiences the type of work that encourages him to find a way off the farm. Fortunately for cotton growers, Preston Sasser's path led him back to the farm in a manner of speaking.
Sasser has played major roles in the move to high-volume instrument (HVI) classing of cotton and finding a solution to the cotton dust problem in textile mills. He retired at the end of February after 30 years with Cotton Incorporated.
“You can't replace a person like Preston Sasser,” says Cotton Incorporated President and CEO J. Berrye Worsham. “You can only keep trying to match his devotion to the cotton industry.”
Over the years, Sasser has become a favorite of farmers who visit the Cotton Incorporated headquarters, based on his results-oriented research and affable manner. (He's a local legend at the highly touted Angus Barn Restaurant in Raleigh, where they've toyed with renaming the Chocolate Chess Pie “Preston's Pie.”)
Even before he got out of North Carolina State University with a degree in agricultural engineering, he was already at the forefront of research. He did graduate work on determining the correct depth and moisture needed for a good cotton stand, and thesis work on more efficient applications of insecticides to cotton.
Prior to coming to Cotton Incorporated in 1973, Sasser was on the cutting edge of cotton classing technology. In fact, his work in the 1960s on the first successful high-speed strength tester for a Dallas firm drew the attention of Dukes Wooters, Cotton Incorporated's first president.
“Mr. Wooters called and asked me if I would come to work for ‘this young company he was starting,’” Sasser says. He jumped at the chance to come back home to Raleigh and work on the implementation of HVI.
Soon after his arrival, however, the priority shifted to cotton dust, a huge problem for the health of textile mill workers. For almost a decade Sasser led an industry-wide group that looked for solutions to the problem of cotton dust in textiles. At one point, Cotton Incorporated had more than two-dozen projects going. The National Cotton Council worked on the project as well. Medical trials were done at Clemson University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
In his search to improve the cleanliness of cotton, Sasser even looked at harvesting and ginning operations. The efforts were required because of OSHA-mandated standards for airborne dust. In the end, researchers concluded that toxins produced by Gram-negative bacteria in the cotton dust caused the respiratory problems for textile workers. “You don't hear about cotton dust anymore,” Sasser says.
Looking back over his career, Sasser takes a “great deal of satisfaction about the things I've seen in the cotton industry. I've been fortunate to work on things that have been important to the cotton industry.”
After doing the basic work on HVI, Sasser got the opportunity to see the work to fruition. He was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to serve on the Advisory Committee on Cotton Marketing The committee's work led the USDA to move all cotton classing to HVI in 1991 and bring strength into the premium and discount schedule. “That's one of the benchmarks of my professional life,” Sasser says. “I worked on the hardware as a young man and was on the committee that saw it implemented. Had I not been here at Cotton Incorporated I wouldn't have had that opportunity.” He also worked with J. K. “Farmer” Jones on the cotton module builder and gin feeder units.
Sasser also played an important role in the design and construction of the new Cotton Incorporated World Headquarters and research facility in Cary, N.C. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to work on the design of a facility that would be totally dedicated to cotton research and promotion,” Sasser says. “It was a great day for Cotton Incorporated staff and for cotton growers when we moved into the new facility in December 1999.” He hopes that all cotton growers will have an opportunity to visit the facility and to see in person the work that goes on there in behalf of U.S. upland cotton.