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cotton gins

Diamond in the Rough

Lauren and Shelley Heinrich
Lauren Heinrich (Left) and Shelley Heinrich (Right) use every opportunity they have to advocate for agriculture. They use their event venue as a tool to share about West Texas agriculture.
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helley and Lauren Heinrich never planned on owning and running a wedding venue, however when they found the Kitalou Gin everything fell into place.

Rediscovering Kitalou 

The Kitalou Gins last year of operation was 1974. From Kitalou’s last crop year the gin was used as a scrapyard. It was left for ruins until 2017 when it was found and restored by the Heinrich family. The Heinrich’s are cotton farmers from Slaton, Texas.

The Kitalou Gin was built in 1925 when communities ginned their own cotton. Located right outside of Idalou, Texas, Kitalou was placed adjacent to a railroad for convenient distribution of freshly ginned cotton. Due to the gins proximity to the railroad, it is said the gin was named after a railroader’s daughter.

In 2017, Shelley Heinrich had a pumpkin business which was booming, and she needed space to store her abundance of pumpkins. Her daughter, Lauren, suggested using an abandoned gin, because so many are scattered around small West Texas towns.

The mother-daughter duo started looking around at perspective properties when Shelley’s husband, Burt, proposed the Kitalou Gin, just minutes from downtown Lubbock.

“Up close, just driving by, it looked like a junk yard,” Shelley said.

The yard was full of old equipment and dead trees. In some places the gin was full to the ceiling with old deteriorating equipment. Despite the looks of the gin, the building was in great shape.

Shelley and Lauren decided to take on the project, spending every spare moment they had cleaning out the old gin.

“We’ve got the equipment and the gumption to do it,” Lauren said.

The Heinrich’s farm and have a lot of equipment, which allowed Shelley and Lauren to do a lot of the work themselves. As a family, the Heinrichs spent nine months cleaning and restoring the gin.

“We’re not only a good mother-daughter team, but good partners.”

Shelley and Lauren did not originally plan to turn the gin into a wedding venue, but the more they cleaned the more they realized the gin was meant to be so much more than a warehouse to store pumpkins.

“It was like overwhelming chaos, because there was so much that we could do,” Shelley said.

Throughout the process one vision remained – to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the gin.

Unexpected Wedding Planners

Lauren said before finding Kitalou, being a wedding coordinator never crossed her mind.

“We have the skill set,” Shelley said, “we just never had the facility.”

The two have backgrounds in event planning, but nothing quite like wedding planning.

Before owning and running the Kitalou Gin, Shelley had a career in the finance industry and retired in 2011. However, her retirement did not last long. In 2013 she went back to work, but this time for commodity organizations, spending a few years with National Sorghum Producers before moving on to her current position with the Cotton Board. Lauren worked for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association and then for a local congressman. In these roles, Shelley and Lauren gained skills in event coordination.

The Heinrichs runs every event themselves. From setting up to tearing down, they are there doing it all. On the day of an event, the family is there parking cars or helping with coordination. At the end of the night, they all get together to clean up the gin.

“When we started, our only goal was getting the bride down the aisle and after that we figured the rest out,” Lauren said.

The first wedding at Kitalou was for a family friend who asked to use the gin for her wedding. The definite timeline of this wedding helped motivate Shelley and Lauren to finish this project.

Even though the two cleaned on the gin for nine months, they were still picking up nails and pieces of metal out of the yard until the day of the first wedding.

A Unique Take on Agriculture 

Despite the disarray of the property, Shelley and Lauren decided to purchase the Kitalou Gin because of its unique location. Only minutes from downtown Lubbock, the location is convenient while still surrounded by farmland. Being surrounded by agriculture gives the Heinrichs a unique opportunity to share about West Texas agriculture.

Kitalou clients are drawn to the unique look and location of the gin.

“I grew up working in the feed yard riding the pens, working cattle, so growing up like that then going out to Kitalou and being surrounded by the farmland and cattle I just fell in love and felt at home”Bride Averye Ferris said.

Kitalou couples tend to come from agricultural backgrounds, however, their guests do not always share that likeness. Because the gin is surrounded by agriculture, with cattle and sheep across the road, lends to great conversations.

“If we’re not telling the story, then who is?” Shelley asked.

Shelley and Lauren have spent many hours at events educating guests on farming in West Texas. They will answer any questions guests have from genetically modified organisms use to water conservation.

As agriculture continues to progress, the Kitalou Gin will become more important to preserve. With the advances in agriculture small gins will become obsolete making Kitalou that much more important.

Mother Daughter Team

“We’re not only a good mother-daughter team, but good partners,” Shelley said.

They can each relate to their customers. Lauren was recently a bride and can understand their needs while Shelley understands the mothers and their perspective. Having their different perspectives helps with problem solving and creating the shared vision of the bride and her mom.

“We take the burden off the families backs and handle everything so they can sit back, relax and enjoy the day,” Lauren said.

Shelley and Lauren encourage their clients to be as creative as possible when dreaming up their big day.

“We’ve already been creative with restoring a gin, now it’s their turn,” said Lauren.

Staying on Track

Round cotton modules ready to be picked up by module trucks. Photo Credit: Jayci Cave

Plains Cotton Cooperative Association is improving technological innovations in the cotton industry. Most recently, PCCA has developed a module tracking and module truck tracking system to help ginning operations run more efficient.

In the past, there was a problem tracking cotton modules from the field to the cotton gin, and farmers were often unaware when the gins picked up their modules or when their cotton was ginned. Many times, farmers would have to go to the gin to ask where their modules were in the ginning process, and the gin personnel couldn’t answer their questions.

Cotton gins also had a difficult time knowing where their truck drivers were or if they were in the right location to pick up modules. Gins would hand their truck drivers huge paper maps of where a farmer’s cotton module was located, but they weren’t given clear directions on how to get there. This made it really difficult for truck drivers to find a module, which sometimes resulted in them becoming lost and having to call the farmer or gin to ask the location of their cotton modules.

All of this resulted in cotton gins losing time and money. Gins spend thousand of dollars a day to operate, and when a truck driver can’t deliver modules to the gin yard in a timely manner, they lose money.

In 2013, Ocho Gin located in Gaines County, Texas, was looking for a solution to the problems they were experiencing, so they approached PCCA for a solution. PCCA immediately began developing a software program called Module Tracking that could finally help Ocho Gin solve their problems locating a farmer’s cotton modules.

PCCA Applications Programmer, John Duncan, graduated from Texas Tech University with a computer science degree and played a major role working on the Ocho Gin project.

“Before module tracking, it wasn’t very user friendly.”

Duncan and a team of programmers decided they wanted to provide a way for gins to track their modules from the field until it was ginned. Before, gins would keep module information from the field to the gin on spreadsheets or even paper.

“When you are ginning 40,000 to 50,000 bales of cotton, that kind of thing is hard to keep track of on just spreadsheets,” said Duncan.

When a farmer calls in his modules, gin personnel can then log in to the web-based program and enter the farmer’s modules into a call-in screen. The farmer can now use an online form on their smartphone to log their call-in instead of having to actually call the gin and show their GPS location. As a result, gin personnel can use the mapping software to easily identify farms.

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Module truck dropping off round cotton modules at Lubbock Cotton Growers.

Duncan and the programmers also integrated their module tracking software directly with the existing truck scale systems at gins to allow better management of modules on the gin yard. With this benefit, gin personnel can now tell farmers exactly where their cotton modules are in the ginning process.

After the success of the module tracking software, Central Rolling Plains Gin in Roscoe, Texas, approached PCCA and asked if there was a way to create a module truck tracking software that integrated with their current module tracking program. Duncan and his team decided to start integrating a module truck tracking software with their current module tracking program. They decided to add the ability for gins to be able to track their module trucks wherever they were and dispatch their truck drivers to a field instead of using a piece of paper. Giving truck drivers an onboard tablet allowed them to receive the GPS location of cotton modules in a field by using the module tracking software. The gin would send the location information to the truck drivers on the tablet, and all they have to do is use the tablet for directions.

“The drivers get a list of accounts to go to and how many modules there are on that account,” Duncan adds. “Then it shows up on their tablet in the order that the gins want them to go pick them up. As the drivers come in and weigh the modules in, they come off of their list.”

When PCCA came and stepped in and took over some of our problems with tracking modules, it really simplified the way it looks for us in the office. Jerry Butman

Module truck tracking makes it more efficient and effective for both the truck drivers and the gin. With module truck tracking now in place, gins know exactly where truck drivers are at all times and can make sure they are staying on task and on course while they are working. The module truck tracking also helps drivers know exactly where they need to be going when they are trying to locate a field and not become lost.

Lubbock Cotton Growers Gin Manager, Jerry Butman, has really enjoyed PCCA’s new module tracking software.

“When PCCA came and stepped in and took over some of our problems with tracking modules, it really simplified the way it looks for us in the office,” Butman said. “Some of the editing we have to do on the bale counting side just really made that easier…a lot of reports PCCA developed in their program are very easy to run.”

Prior to PCCA providing their module tracking software at Lubbock Cotton Growers, Butman and his gin personnel had to run other programs that were not as user-friendly. According to Butman, they had to set up their own parameters and other programs to just run a module and bale report.

“PCCA’s new module tracking software is user friendly and easy to operate and real easy for our staff to pick up and learn,” Butman adds.

Module tracking also has helped farmers in some ways; they can easily use an app when they are ready to call in their modules.

“When we accept a farmers call-in through the PCCA Member Access app it automatically generates a text back to them, giving them the module numbers we want them to put on the modules themselves. It will also tell the farmers how many modules will be ginned before theirs and so much more information,” Butman said.

Ocho Gin was the first gin to successfully run the module-tracking software in 2012 that Duncan and other programmers helped create. Other gins quickly began following in their footsteps to run the module and truck tracking programs. There are now 44 gins that are using the module-tracking software, and 11 gins that are using the module truck tracking software. Module tracking is a fast growing software, and PCCA plans to work on module tracking projects and other technological advances with John Deere in the future.

“We’ve actually started a project with John Deere. John Deere’s have made some advancements in their harvesters…We actually have already got where if you use a John Deere harvester you can make your call-in automatically into the gin, Duncan said. “Where we’re trying to push John Deere and ourselves is to tie that module with the location the harvester went in the field. Once you’ve done that you can actually tie a bale of cotton to specifically where it came from in your cotton field.”

Gins in the South Plains area could be using module and truck tracking software sometime in the future, which will revolutionize the cotton industry.

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