A daughter and father team up to create a homegrown cotton empire
Long rows of cotton plants grow up through the red-earthed farm in Lawrence County, Alabama where, decades ago, Anna Yeager Brakefield’s ’12 grandfather moved his six children in order to teach them the values of hard work.
What started as a hobby farm with a few hundred acres now numbers in the thousands thanks to the work ethic and business sense of Brakefield’s father, Mark Yeager, and is now home to the father and daughter duo’s business, Red Land Cotton.
When it came time to go to college, Yeager wanted Brakefield to go to the University of Alabama, but, after visiting their campus and then comparing it to Auburn’s, her mind was made up. Yeager reluctantly agreed.
“That was much to my parents’ dismay, because they had always been Alabama fans,” Brakefield laughed. “But my dad kind of converted. He says wherever he has his money go, there his heart goes, too.”
One of Yeager’s expectations for her daughter was that she would major in agriculture, with the expectation of returning to the North Alabama to help her family’s farm. Once again, Brakefield had a different future for herself in mind. After taking an agriculture class and making one of her worst grades ever, she decided to change course and applied to the graphic design program. Once again, Yeager supported her daughter, albeit reluctantly.
“Until we started working together a couple of years ago, I don’t think he [Yeager] had a single clue what graphic design was, or how it applied to the real world, or how anybody would make money doing it,” Brakefield said.
Despite what her father may have initially thought about graphic design, Brakefield was able to find a job soon after graduating from Auburn in 2012 with Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, an advertising firm based in New York, where she worked for around two years on big name accounts like BMW and American Express, as well as a campaign for rapper Jay Z’s cologne
Then, after getting married to her college sweetheart and moving to Nashville, Tennessee, Yeager approached his daughter during the holidays in 2015 with the idea for Red Land Cotton, a family business that would oversee not just the growth and harvest of raw cotton, but manufacture finished home goods like bed sheets and towels. Every step of the process would be done within the United States.
sBrakefield said that her father came up with the idea when he posted a photo of his cotton onto Instagram (which he’s come to be an active user on over the years), and his sister commented on his photo, wishing that her bed sheets were made from cotton like his.
“So I said ‘What the heck’ and we started putting a supply chain together in February of 2016 and we had a product by October of 2016 to ship out,” Brakefield said. “I was able to take the foundations that I learned at Auburn in the graphic design department and the advertising knowledge that I acquired in New York and was able to apply that to create a business.”
As a co-founder of Red Land Cotton, Brakefield oversees the company’s sales, marketing and product development, while her two brothers help her father with the farming side of the business.
Brakefield said her father does a lot more outside of the farm, too, including writing scripts for radio ads and voicing them himself, creating videos about their business while also educating people about the way the farming process is handled and, generally, fixing snags along the supply chain whenever they arise. To hear Brakefield describe it another way, “He has a unique ability to get things done.”
Brakefield said founding a business has had its share of challenges to overcome. Because they want to keep their product grown and manufactured in America, they must deal with the consequences of a global economy and outsourcing, which includes the closing of certain businesses they rely on within their supply chain.
“So many of these textile shops have shut down,” Brakefield said. “Anywhere that you go, there are women who know how to cut and sew, and there are people in other countries willing to work for significantly less than what our standard in the United States is, so it’s very difficult from the production standpoint to make something here and have it be competitive.”
Another more surprising issue is some more vocal users on the internet who misunderstood Red Land Cotton to be politically affiliated, either because it’s based in Alabama or because it has “Red” in its name (which is meant to describe the color of North Alabama soil, as opposed to any affiliation with the Republican Party). Brakefield said that someone online told them that she would “make it her lifetime mission to never buy or support anything from us, and called us racist.”
Despite the difficulties, Brakefield said that business has been good since Red Land Cotton’s founding and that they’re considering expanding their product to include goods like pillows and comforters. In 2018 they started selling quilts.
“I like to quantify our growth like this: We started out on our first run with 48 bales of cotton, which was the minimum the spinner would spin for us. This year we will have consumed over 400 bales of cotton,” Brakefield said. “We started out with one weaving loom and now we’re weaving off of six looms. So it has been steady growth and a steady climb.”
Founding a business has taught her to never take no for an answer, because there’s always a solution and a way to work something out, Brakefield said.
“One of my professors at Auburn said, ‘A graphic designer is someone who solves problems.’ When you run a business, that’s what you do. Every single day, you solve problems.”