How Does One Live Through Their First Beltwide?

January 5, 2010

Mr. Ray on his farm in Wisner, Louisiana.

I know the question itself sounds overly dramatic.  I didn’t use that title for emphasis either.  I’ve been to the Beltwide Cotton Conference every year for two decades now.  It’s a conference that can test physical and mental strength.  After all these years, I still remember my first Beltwide.

I was in graduate school working for an agricultural publications company and it was my first big professional conference.  Everyone else in the office had been before and seemed to know a lot of the names and faces.  I, on the other hand, was the person who had to record every phone call so I could refer to the dictionary and ask co-workers questions later.  (I can still remember listening to a farmer tell a story about impregnating  before [the farmer] put them in the spreader… The vocabulary seemed familiar but there was no way I knew what they meant!  How could that have to do with combining weed control and fertilizer into a single trip across the field?)

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how intimidated I was by the cotton industry.  But even though I’m looking back through today’s lens, believe me, I couldn’t seem to find the pace.

The first Beltwide morning, I went into a theater type room with jumbotrons on either end of the stage.  The few familiar faces were rushing by with the question, “have you seen so & so?”  I had no clue.  In the afternoon, breakout sessions started and people moved in a dozen directions at once. I had a list of things to “cover” and was instructed to talk with some cotton farmers or crop consultants.  I was having trouble just getting in the right room at the right time – after all, presentations changed every 10-15 minutes!

The people would spill out of rooms and it would be like fruit basket turnover!  I can’t remember how I came to be in the hall that afternoon, but I remember spotting a couple of familiar faces.  It was Mrs. Dorothy.   (Yes, she has a last name, it’s Young, but everyone calls her Mrs. Dorothy.)   Her husband, Mr. Ray was my very first on-farm interview.  He was one of the nicest people I’d ever met too – he even made me a grilled cheese and served me tomato soup! They probably would have forgotten this decades ago, but I always remind them.

She was waiting for Mr. Ray to come out of one of the sessions.  I took the time for a brief break from the rat race.  We were chatting about how the conference was going and she could sense I was feeling a bit lost.  She got Mr. Ray’s attention and I think my smile must have grown three sizes at the site of his friendly face!  And next thing I knew they had introduced me to a few of the people I had been hearing about – the guys who had shaped the cotton industry for decades.  Mrs. Dorothy even told a few of that and (I’ll quote from memory) “This is our good friend Janice.  If she ever gives you a call, make sure you help her out.”  And just like that, I was at home in the cotton business.

Beltwide just isn’t the same without the familiar faces, but I’m keenly aware of new faces too.  I hope I make some of the new folks feel as welcome in cotton as I was that first Beltwide so long ago.  It’s amazing the impact one or two people can have on an individual.

You can read about one college student’s first Beltwide right now. Learn about the show through the eyes of Jillian on Beyond the Tradeshows.

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