Northwestern Alabama cotton farmer Mark Yeager knows all about turning lemons into lemonade—and making a living in a challenging cotton market beset by declining prices and escalating operating expenses. From 1987 to 2012, the number of cotton farms in Alabama declined from 1,820 to 925, according to USDA Census of Agriculture data.
Many of Yeager’s peers have exited the market for greener pastures, but Yeager has relied on innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit to continue his passion for cotton farming. In 1994, he built his own cotton gin. “I wanted control of my own cotton and to mill my own cotton seed,” says Yeager, who’s been a Farm Credit customer for more than 30 years.
In 2016, Yeager and his family launched Red Land Cotton heirloom sheets.
“While other cotton farmers are diversifying into other crops, Mark is taking his cotton and further producing it. What he is doing is completely unique from anything I have seen,” says the Yeagers’ loan officer, Heath Davis, vice president and branch manager with Alabama Farm Credit in Tuscumbia.
Defining the Brand
With the idea of developing their own line of cotton bedding, Yeager and his daughter, Anna Brakefield, set about doing market research, talking with friends and neighbors to refine their concept.
“A friend came up to me in Sunday school and mentioned that she had found some 1920s linens in a chest that had been passed down to her from her great-grandmother,” says Yeager. “I slept on them and they reminded me of sleeping on grandma’s sheets as a kid.”
The idea of vertically integrating appealed to Yeager, and the romance and nostalgia of days gone by had resonance.
“We could have made a high-thread-count, high-sheen sheet with the high-quality cotton we are growing, but I don’t think that would have correlated with who we are here on the farm,” says Brakefield, who researched pricing and messaging to differentiate Red Land Cotton sheets from other high-end sheets. “We wanted to make something that was different.”
Recreating Grandma’s Sheets
What was missing, they determined, was a superior-quality sheet made to the specifications of heirloom textiles. With that concept in mind, they had textile engineers analyze the sheets of Madeline Gray, a friend’s great-grandmother. They replicated the weave and design as closely as possible, down to the double-hemstitching, lace edging, and bleached and natural color options. Gray is the namesake for one of the lines entered production in 2016.
“We are using the best cotton we have, and the construction will feel very much like a 1920s sheet. It breathes much better than a tightly woven 600-count sheet,” says Brakefield, describing Red Land’s sets of heirloom sheets, which retail online starting at $250.
Marketing Through Social Media
To generate advance sales, Brakefield placed drawings of the sheet designs online and promoted them on social media.
“Online marketing offers so many options and capabilities for a person in rural Alabama to reach the masses,” says Brakefield, who has relied heavily on social platforms and low-cost videos posted on the Red Land Cotton website to evoke a nostalgic tone.
“My goal is that every ounce of cotton that leaves the farm goes into our own textile,” Yeager says.
Photo provided by Gary Clark.