It is said that if you do what you love, then you will never work a day in your life. If you are a farmer that statement needs to be amended because farming is work. But if you love it, you will never want to do any other thing in your life.
There is no doubt that Julius Tillery loves farming. He has to. How else can someone be a fifth generation cotton farmer, in an industry with the tightest of margins, and keep a winning smile on his face, except for the fact that he loves what he does.
As one of only a handful of Black cotton farmers left in the country, Tillery hopes to revive the prestige and power of the cotton farmer.
Historically in America, cotton is closely associated with slavery. In the early 20th century almost three quarters of land-owning Black families were involved in cotton farming. Of course many of them were run out of the south and had their land stolen, but the fact still remains that cotton was a crop that made money. It still makes money to this day.
America is the third largest cotton producer in the world; coming in behind China and India. Cotton is a $25 Billion industry annually, so why wouldn’t you want to be a cotton farmer?
Tillery understands the value of the crop he grows as well as the value of his knowledge to grow it. He mentioned at the beginning of his interview with The Carolinian that he feels like he is a part of an almost extinct group.
He started his company, Black Cotton, to bring awareness to cotton farming and the existence of black cotton farmers. His company is both a cotton decor company and raw cotton supplier.
Tillery is a fifth generation cotton farmer in Northampton County, in northeastern North Carolina. Rev. D.L. Tillery, his great-great-grandfather, born in 1871, was the first free-born member of his family that he knows of. Cotton has been his family’s crop of choice since at least the Emancipation Proclamation.
There used to be many more cotton farmers in his area, but the cost of raising cotton is so high that it discourages many farmers from growing it.
The Tillery’s grow about 50 acres of cotton per year. Their neighbors in the cotton farming industry grow 500 acres or more annually. So, on average, all of the other cotton farms are at least 10 times the size of theirs.
‘‘We have smaller equipment, but we know how to do our business very well,’’ said Tillery.
Both Julius and his father are well educated. His father, James, has a Master’s degree and Julius graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. These men could have chosen very different paths in their lives, but they chose to do something extraordinary by today’s standards. They chose to continue their family’s tradition and grow cotton.
‘‘It takes a lot of intelligence to do this crop now,’’ Tillery explains. ‘‘People used to say that agriculture is the least educated field. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers had third and fourth grade educations and they were in agriculture. But, their third and fourth grade education is a lot different then ours. They were really smart… From my generation, none of us have the vocational education to understand rebuilding diesel engines. We are going extinct because we don’t even know how to run the equipment that our families have collected over the years.’’
Tillery’s passion for the farm, and pride in his history shows in his work. He explained the difficulty of managing low yields and profit margins, but also shared his joy for moving the business forward and diversifying.
The things he is doing with Black Cotton can begin to make his profits match his passion. The tariff war has really hurt the cotton industry. But instead of giving up and folding, Tillery came up with the idea to sell raw cotton domestically. It was a risk, but one his was willing to take.
‘‘To be in my position, as a fifth generation farmer, your family had to make sacrifices. Very few people can just outright buy this equipment and be in this business. To be in the position that we are, which is still an ant in the jungle, it has been multiple generations of sacrifice and willingness to hold onto this because its hard.’’
‘‘In the 11th grade I left the area to go to the School of Science and Mathematics. Not one time, during my whole childhood, did anyone say that I was going to be a successful farmer. Not one time.’’
‘‘For a long time people looked at us like we were stupid to be farmers. At a young age I never told people that we farmed. That was something I kept from schoolmates. The only people that knew I farmed were my teammates because sometimes I had to leave practice to go help my dad. I didn’t have any farmer pride.’’
As Tillery got older and had a little more life experience, he realized that he didn’t want to be anywhere other than the farm. That shame he felt as a young person disappeared with age. He realized what the farm provided; which is everything.
In starting Black Cotton, Tillery wanted to change the mindset and how people viewed cotton farming. Even before he started making and selling products, he know that he wanted cotton farming to be different.
He assigned the tag line Cotton Is Our Culture to his brand to put a new outlook on cotton farming. ‘‘I’m so proud that when people across the country see these products, they can think about our community.’’
Tillery went on to say, ‘‘I think you can sell a sad story once or twice, but you can sell a good product forever.’’
This dedication to connection resonates through everything Tillery does. He is so lighthearted and high-spirited that you feel like you have known him all of your life when you meet him. He is incredibly southern, and incredibly smart. He is both well educated and well intentioned.
When we went to interview him, he gave us a tour of an old elementary school that his small Halifax County town had turned into community space. Tillery utilizes two classrooms in the building for crafting and youth activities.
Just outside of his window is a walking track. It is gravel, and small by metropolitan standards, but it makes him smile every time he sees someone walking around it. He takes pride in that track because he helped get it there. The people in the town needed a place to walk and the kids needed a playground, so he helped them to get both.
Tillery’s connection to the earth, his connection to his family and his connection to his community is the reason Black Cotton will be so successful.
To support Black Cotton you can contact him on any social media platform. Follow him on Instagram @BlackCotton.us, on FaceBook search for Black Cotton Decor and on Twitter search @mr_black_cotton as well. You can also call The Carolinian for more contact information.