Technology Had Little Impact on Tobacco Farming

Still done by hand


| February 2001



This hand-powered horizontal "prize" is approximately 30 feet long.

This hand-powered horizontal "prize" is approximately 30 feet long. It was used to pack bundles of tobacco into wooden hogsheads.

John Parlett wants future generations to know the story of farm life in the United States so they can appreciate their heritage.

With that goal in mind, he has established the John K. Parlett Farm-Life Museum on the family farm at Charlotte Hall, Md., close to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

“I wanted to put together a museum that tells a story and I set out to do that,” he said. “We open up to school kids in May and October, and we open to the general public once a year.”

His collection, which touches on every aspect of life on the farm during the past four centuries, features a tobacco museum. Tobacco farming has been an important part of southern Maryland agriculture since the first settlers arrived in the early 17th century.

“Indians were growing tobacco and smoking it when Maryland was founded in 1634,” Parlett said. “Growing tobacco is the most labor-intensive farming, the hardest work. Little has changed over hundreds of years.”

At the annual Southern Maryland Farm-Life Festival held at the museum last October, James “Junior” Hall and his wife, Irvanette, served as museum guides in the tobacco barn. They have lived in the area all their lives and were once tobacco farmers, as were their parents and many other relatives living in Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties. Growers still live and work in the area, but since the 1970s, tobacco has become a second occupation for many, as people have sought other employment to supplement their incomes.

Tobacco farming is a 12-month affair, which even today is mostly done by hand. It is a small acreage crop, perhaps seven to 10 acres, with a yield of about 1,000 pounds per acre. Seeds are planted in February or March, with an August harvest. When the harvest is complete, wheat or rye is planted in the fields as a cover crop, to be plowed under before planting the following spring.

“Tobacco seed beds are tucked away in the warmest part of the property,” Irvanette said. “The beds are 100 yards long and three to four feet wide. About two to three tablespoons of seed are planted per 100 yards, then the beds are covered with a cotton cover, which is taken off when the seedlings grow. When they are about four to five inches high and have three to four leaves, they are referred to as plants. They are transplanted in late April or early May, depending on the weather.”