Monday, November 12, 2012

Putting In Tobacco

Tobacco barns are seldom seen today, having been replaced by more modern technology.

From the year when I was 11-going-on-12 to the year when I turned 16, I spent part of each summer at my cousin's house, and we worked "putting in tobacco," also known as "barning tobacco."

The first summer, we worked for a distant cousin we called "Uncle" and his partner TJ. Their wives took turns preparing our lunch - always a spread worthy of royalty, and always accompanied by all the sweet iced tea we could drink. Our employer or one of our co-workers collected us and dropped us off each day. We rode in the back of a pick-up truck... imagine a truckload of teenagers in grubby clothes laughing and having the time of their lives as they rode to or from adult labor that was part of the economic base of the place where we lived. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, I was paid $1.00 an hour. One summer I remember being given $300 when it was all over. I think that was the year I bought my first record player - but most of the money went for school supplies and clothes.

The first summer (1968), I started out as the tractor driver, but graduated to stringer on the right wing, a position that had me touching hands with my cropper Milton Smith, a magnificent pianist who used to play for us during our lunch breaks. He was later hired as pianist for Elvis Presley - unfortunately his first concert playing with Elvis was to be the one scheduled for Fayetteville, North Carolina, in late August 1977.

After that summer, another cousin was our boss; he and a partner farmed 100 acres of the stuff. They ran two harvester teams, five days a week. We worked from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a Pepsi/Mountain Dew break (also with the cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers we called "Nabs") in the morning and afternoon, and a lunch break.

Wikipedia gives some good information about the process of harvesting and curing tobacco. The information below which explains my experience comes from that site, and I've omitted the parts that aren't relevant to the years I worked in tobacco. Additional info from me personally is in [brackets]. If you want to know more about it, please visit Wikipedia.

In the nineteenth century, tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco may go through several "pullings" before the tobacco is entirely harvested, and the stalks may be turned into the soil. "Cropping" or "pulling" are terms for pulling leaves off tobacco. Leaves are cropped as they ripen, from the bottom of the stalk up. The first crop at the very bottom of the stalks are called "sand lugs", as they are often against the ground and are coated with dirt splashed up when it rains. Sand lugs weigh the most, and are most difficult to work with.

Originally workers cropped the tobacco and placed it on mule-pulled sleds. [We called them "drags," and they were pulled by tractors when I was a child.] Some farmers use "tobacco harvesters" - basically a trailer pulled behind a tractor. The harvester is a wheeled sled or trailer that has seats for the croppers to sit on and seats just in front of these for the "stringers" to sit on. The croppers pull the leaves off in handfuls, and pass these to the "stringer", who loops twine around the handfuls of tobacco and hangs them on a long wooden square pole. Traditionally, the croppers, down in the dark and wet, with their faces getting slapped by the huge tobacco leaves, were men, and the stringers seated on the higher elevated seats were women.

The harvester has places for 4 teams of workers: 8 people cropping and stringing, plus a packer who takes the heavy strung poles of wet green tobacco from the stringers and packs them onto the pallet section of the harvester, plus a tractor driver, making the total crew of each harvester 10 people. Interestingly, the outer seats are suspended from the harvester - slung out over to fit into the aisles of tobacco.

 [Here's how it works for the stringers on the "wings" - or how it worked then: The stringer takes a stick from the bin overhead and loops some twine securely around the end of the stick, then puts it into a holder which is suspended on a slide mechanism. The cropper picks two or three leaves from each stalk of tobacco and hands it up to his stringer, supposedly in manageable bundles. The stringer puts several loops around the first bunch. Then she works in a figure eight motion, stringing the bundles of tobacco to alternating sides of the stick, making sure to keep the string taut. As the stick gets more and more tobacco on it, she pushes the stick away from her for better access to the part where the tobacco is being added. When the stick is full, she wraps the string around the end of the stick several times and breaks the twine. She then yells "Stick!" to get the pallet man's attention, and as the harvester keeps moving, she lifts the heavy stick over the row of tobacco and passes it to him. I sometimes had to lift sticks of tobacco that weighed more than I did. Then the process begins all over again.

Stringers working immediately behind the tractor have it easier because they don't get dragged between two rows of tobacco. They only catch it from one side. Their bin of sticks is between the two of them. Sometimes, someone runs into a problem, such as thread that becomes knotted up or is breaking too easily, a row that may not have been cropped properly the previous week and is therefore heavier than the other rows, or even a snake in the tobacco row. In cases like these, we'd yell, "Whoa!" and the tractor would come to a halt. Once the problem was taken care of, the command was "Go ahead!" Often at the end of the season when all that was left were a few leaves at the tops of the plants, we'd virtually fly through the fields, and sometimes the croppers and stringers would trade places. Kind of like the idea of a powder-puff football game!]

 As these seats are suspended it is important to balance the weight of the 2 outside teams (similar to a playground see-saw). Having too heavy or light a person in an unbalanced combination often results in the harvester tipping over especially when turning around at the end of a lane. [Except in places where the ends of the fields had a lot of open space, I always had to turn the tractor over to someone bigger and stronger than me to make the narrow turns at the ends of the rows. Fortunately, we never had a harvester turn over during my years in the tobacco field.]

 Cropped leaves are immediately transferred to tobacco barns, where they will be cured. Curing methods varies with the type of tobacco grown, and tobacco barn design varies accordingly. Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barns. These barns have flues which run from externally-fed fire boxes, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke. Traditional curing barns in the U.S. are falling into disuse, as the trend toward more efficient prefabricated metal "bulk barns", allows greater efficiency. {End of Wikipedia info.}

I learned a lot from my days in the tobacco field. It was there that I learned to be a little less shy - as it was I spent most days blushing beet red because of off-color comments from some of the teenaged boys I worked with. (One of their favorite things to do during breaks was to catch tobacco hornworms and put them down the backs of the older girls. Since I mentioned Milton by name earlier, let me state categorically that he was always a perfect gentleman.) I learned just a little bit about holding my own in discussions, though I'm still learning that almost 40 years later. All in all, even though it was hard, dirty work, I look back on those summers with a smile.

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