Raising tobacco in the post-Depression era
Cultivating tobacco on one of the Irwinville farms, Georgia, 1938.
It’s a dirty word these days, but to agricultural historians, it’s inherent to our agrarian beginnings. Tobacco was a frequent subject of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, and was actually used as a form of currency and exchange in colonial times.
Tobacco farming is provincial to certain areas of the country. It grows best in areas having a mean temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and well-drained soil. North Carolina and Kentucky have long been leaders in tobacco production, being responsible for nearly 60 percent of all tobacco produced in the United States. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut were also known for tobacco farming.
The tobacco plant’s leaves are cured, fermented, and aged to develop aroma and reduce any pungency that fresh leaves may produce. It may be cured by drying leaves in smoke from a fire, air-cured by hanging leaves in well-ventilated spaces, or flue-cured by hanging leaves in a flue or near the radiant heat of a furnace.
The tobacco farmer’s life and work is well documented in the Library of Congress’ collection from the Federal Writers’ Project.
Those materials, from the Library of Congress manuscript division, are part of a larger collection titled the U.S. Work Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey. The holdings span the years 1889-1942 and cover a wide range of topics and subprojects. Altogether, the Federal Writers’ holdings number approximately 300,000 items, including correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, graphs, charts, essays, oral testimony, folklore and other material.
In “Barning Tobacco,” writer Omar Darrow interviewed farmer Archie Marler, Durham, N.C., in 1939. Marler described the process of curing tobacco and the plight of a Depression-era farmer as he attempted to carve out a living from the traditional cash crop:
Archie Marler plants tobacco for his means of livelihood. Archie was wearing clean khaki pants, a blue shirt, a gray hat, and was barefoot, as was his wife. “I’ve got in two barns now,” he began. “I’m always glad when I got my barns filled. Then I can come out of them clothes and feel a bit cleaner. I’ll tell you what’s so, when I come out of them clothes awhile ago, them overalls was so full of gum they stood alone ’cause they was so stiff.
“Raising tobacco is sure a nasty job, as well as a hard one. If I’d get what my crop this year is worth in dollars and cents, I’d never have to hit another lick or work no matter how long I lived, but we folks that makes it don’t get nothing much.”
What the author captures is an interesting look into the process of fire-curing tobacco in the farmer’s barn. To a tobacco farmer, it’s called “barning tobacco.” Marler describes the growing cycle and process from its beginnings when the ground is cultivated.
“Here’s what us tobacco growers have to do to make a crop: We burn out places that we want to sow our seeds, along maybe in November. To burn a plant bed means that we burn brush over the spot. That kills out grass seeds and ground insects, and leaves ashes that helps to fertilize the ground. Then, as soon as we get that bed worked up like we want, we sow the seeds. This comes the last of January. We leave the bed then for the seeds to start germinating, which is about three or four weeks. Then we put the canvas on it.
“The seeds start coming up about the last of February, and in a week or so, we have to start weeding the bed. We start planting by the last of April into May, but plant no later than June. We plow it at least four times, and chop it not less than three times.
“Before we can plant it at all, we have to work the land by plowing. Then we fertilize deeply in the furrows that are first run for rows. We start working this land for planting almost by the time we start canvassing the plant bed. After it is plowed the second time, we start harrowing it until it is soft before we ever cut a furrow with a plow.
“Almost by the time the plant is set, the worms start coming. Then there’s worming to be done. The grass starts along with the worming, which calls for plowing and chopping. We start priming it around July, first or second week, and each field is primed at least five times before it is finally cut.”
Marler describes this laborious process of fire-curing tobacco in the sweltering heat of a North Carolina summer:
“It takes two and a half cords of wood to cure a bam, and that has to be cut and split. After we get a barn filled, we fire it and get it started to curing at between 80 and 90 degrees, and let it stay thereabouts until it turns yellow. Then we get the thermometer up to 110 for about eight or 10 hours, then increase the fire, stopping when it reaches 120 degrees for three or four hours. After this, we run the heat up to 130 for 25 hours, drying the leaf. Then we go up to 170 or 180 to kill it out. It takes four days and four nights to cure one bam. We hardly ever set up, though; we just set a clock to alarm at different times. When it’s dried, we just let the fire get down and drag the coals out of the flues. Then we keep the dirt floors of the barns wet and keep this up a day and a half or two days to get the leaf in order for moving. This softens the leaves so that they don’t crack or tear from handling. If the weather is rainy or damp, we only open the doors to let the moisture in. When it is ready to move, we pack it up in a pile with all the tips turned one way, then we pen it with all the sticks to the outside of the pens so that ventilation might prevent molding.”
Grading tobacco is preliminary to sending it to market. The farmer must bundle the cured tobacco by grade before it goes off for auction or purchase:
“Then it must be graded. It takes three days for one grader to grade a barn, and he must have two men to tie it up. There is three grades: that’s the new way of grading. It used to be that there was about six grades. We have a first grade which is yellow — that is the choice. The second grade is ordinary, and the third grade is the remainder that’s saved of the crop.”
Marler was also free with farm philosophy, capturing the mood of post-Depression-era farmers.
“I don’t pay no attention to politics no more,” he said. “I used to be a Democrat, but now I hardly know what to call myself ’cause I ain’t much of a New Dealer.
“I’m no church member. Maria is. She’s been a member since she was a girl. I never felt much like I should be a church member, for when I look around me, it seems that being a member don’t change a person much. And I never thought it was right to do anything if you don’t exactly know you’re right in doing it, so I never joined a church. I go with Maria when we can get off, but that ain’t often ’cause we got so many children. Maria’s one of them old-fashioned kind of mothers that wants to take the kids to church with us, and there’s so many to wash and dress we just can’t get there on time.
“We don’t have no car on the place except Bronco’s old ’26 Ford. I ain’t felt able to buy another, for we need a new house here. I own the place. The land’s right good, and I make good crops, but I have to work mighty hard to give my family plenty to eat and clothes to wear. I’ve got near to 100 acres in this piece, and another little tract close by just over the hill yonder. A poor man has to work all his life anyhow, but it’s healthy.” FCJim Romeo is a freelance writer in Chesapeake, Va. He may be contacted at 1008 Weeping Willow Dr., Chesapeake, VA 23322.