Note: I am not particularly knowledgable about the scientific aspects of tobacco farming, nor do I know much about the machinery and the plants themselves. This writeup is intended to be a subjective, personal, firsthand account of one of the most disgust
ing businesses that still exist on this planet, and my involvement with it.
For as long as I can remember, up until three years ago, my father was a tobacco farmer. In some ways this also meant that I was, because my town seems to be stuck in a sociological time warp, leaving me behind in the poor agrarian era. I grew up in a small town in Maryland named Baden, where we have several acres of fields right in our back yard. The winters were crisp and biting, and the summers were hot and long. I was eight when I began working on the farm.
I remember very little about my early years, and I must confess that my age at the time is just an estimate that could be way off. I remember I was small, though, because I wasn't able to do all the work that needed doing. I had two older brothers, though, and they were able to. I don't believe that I was paid in those early years. I was slave labor for my father.
My role in the entire process during those early years, since I was not strong and also not very tall, was to man the planter. This job wasn't too bad, though it was very dirty. The unfortunate thing is that planting generally came around during the springtime, right around the time of finals. While this wasn't bad as a child, this became a source of friction between me and my father as I entered high school. It was such a time of year that it could be incredibly hot, making you ache to get off of the planter because the plastic seats absorbed the heat, or it could be incredibly cold, causing your fingers to freeze as you handled the moist plants.
I'm under the impression that my dad had already planted the seeds beforehand. He grew a lot of little plants in a small garden, and they were all closely bunched together as to conserve space. Once they reached a certain height, probably about nine inches, my father would pick them and pack them into bushels, which we would take with us to the main field.
The plants needed to be spaced out much more to give each plant the room it needed to grow large and absorb water and nutrients from the ground. My dad had some device for planting a plant singlehandedly, but this was almost never used because it was very slow, and not very precise, and he always had his children to use for help. Instead, we used a mechanical planter attached to the back of the tractor. This planter consisted of a large metal bin which contained water and fertilizer, which was connected to the planting slot by a plastic tube. The planting slot contained two pockets, one red and one yellow. There were two seats, so ideally two people would plant at the same time, one person taking the yellow pocket and one person taking the red. This allowed my father to drive the tractor twice as fast. The pockets spun in a circle parallel to the tractor's wheels. They were powered by the wheels on the planter. As we moved across the ground, the wheels on the planter would spin, and the pockets, since they were attached to the wheel, would also spin at the same rate. There was also a plow attached to the front of the planter to create a hole in the ground where the plant would go. The whole apparatus was designed so that when you put a plant into the pocket, it would drop that plant into the ground upright, dump water and fertilizer into the hole, close the hole as the plow moved on, and then move to the next plant. It was quite impressive, and the mechanics behind it was the only thing that could keep me interested as I monotonously put in plant after plant.
The plants were stored in metal bins above the seat. We would replenish them after we finished each row. They led to interesting problems as we went along. Sometimes a plant would get stuck on another plant as it was our turn to fill the pocket, so we would come up with code words for this so that the other person could try to cover for you while this happened. Also, sometimes someone would run out of plants before the end of the row, and so we would try to toss some spare plants over while keeping our rhythm. Placing the plants into the pockets required skill, precision, and finesse. I became very good at this very quickly, because I had great hand-eye coordination from all of the video games I played. To this day, I am still very proud of the speed with which I can plant tobacco. On the other hand I am also disgusted by it.
When I was young, I didn't even know what tobacco was used for. I don't know when it occurred to me, or, for that matter, when I decided that I hated cigarettes, but it was a moral dilemma for me. I found out that I had been growing products that had killed many people. Granted, the people are the ones who choose to smoke, and it's not like the small amount of tobacco that I had helped to grow could make that large of a difference, but I was part of a system, a system of death and a system of addiction. It still burdens my conscience to this very day even though I know I didn't have any say in the matter, because I would have had to work in the fields whether I wanted to or not, unless I was going to run away from home.
It only got worse as the years went on and I matured into a young adult. In high school I was still working in the fields, and I had become a major part of the operation. Both of my brothers had gone off to college, so I was left alone with my father and the occasional help from neighbors. This was very bad, because I already hated farming, but now my dad threw some strangers into the mix, which only bothered me further because they were trying to be super-masculine as you'd expect in a job like farming, whereas I was sitting there still trying to understand my sexuality. I had moral problems with tobacco farming, and I had emotional problems with tobacco farming, but most of all I had physical problems with tobacco farming.
I've never been very strong, and tobacco farming is hard work. Those nine inch plants we put in the ground had grown over the past four months into six foot tall monsters. Somehow, my dad's tobacco was always abnormally large, whether because of his technique with fertilizer or because of my technique with planting, I don't know. These plants were large, and heavy, and it was achingly hot in mid-August. I was a lucky one, getting to spend my birthday working in the tobacco field instead of hanging out with friends. At least I was getting paid for it, and decently too. My father paid me eight dollars an hour by the final year. The backbreaking physical labor involved, however, was not worth it to someone like me, who prizes intellect and creativity.
First came the cutting. We had little tobacco knives, which was a misnomer since they were really little axes, and we would go down the row chopping each plant down and laying it to the ground. We tried not to break any of the precious leaves, which were brittle and unyielding. The stalks usually had about a three inch diameter, but we could usually take out each plant with one chop. You had to fold back the plant to expose the base of the stalk, and this was the problem. As you pushed it with your bare arm, your arm became coated with this horrible, sticky substance that smelled gross and tasted even worse. As the heat got to you, you would sweat, and then in a moment of not thinking, you would use your arm to wipe your forehead. The substance would cover your forehead and mix with your sweat, and then it would start dripping into your eyes. Without thinking, you would try to rub your eyes, and it would only make things worse. The pain was tremendous, second only to the time that I was stabbed in the eye (which is another story entirely). There wasn't much that could be done for it without the aid of large quantities of water, which we kept handy.
Nature also was a threat. Pushing on the plant sometimes startled bees and wasps, and you had to watch yourself and try to cover up, which only led to feeling hotter and sweating more. Snakes, too, were a danger, though I never encountered one myself.
Finally, when all of the plants of a given section had been cut down, we went through and speared them. First, it was my job to drop the wooden sticks we would spear them onto. I absolutely hated this job, and no one seemed to understand why. It was a lot of walking, since you had to cover all of the ground that everyone else had already covered. Beyond that, carrying a lot of sticks made it heavy, and the sticks were rectangular, so what would happen is that as you shifted them, two sticks would come together sharply and pinch your arm. Beyond that, they were low quality wood since they were expendable. By the time I had finished, it took ten minutes to get the splinters out of my arms.
But I didn't have time to do that, not while the tobacco lay on the ground. Once I dropped the sticks, I got myself a metal spearhead that attaches to the pointed end of the stick. I found a good place to start, attached the spearhead, and propped up the stick. The stick was parallel to my body, and I held it by wrapping my leg around it at first. I needed both hands to reach down and pick up a plant. I drew the plant up to the spear, held it perpendicular to the spearhead about six inches from the base of the plant. With both hands on the plant, one on each side of the spear, I violently thrusted downwards, splitting the stalk of the plant in half, though keeping it together at the end. That way, the stick was surrounded on all four sides by the tobacco stalk and the tobacco could therefore hang from the stick. I pushed the plant to the bottom of the stick, then reached for the next one. I did this about five or six times, depending on the size of the plants, until the stick was full with tobacco, and extremely heavy. I then lay the stick on a pile which we would later come around and collect on the trailor.
Getting the sticks into the barn was a challenge. On the plus side, we were inside the barn, in the shade, so it was much cooler. However, the barn is large, and sometimes it can be as much as ten feet to the lowest beam in the barn from the trailor. What does this mean? Well, I always was the one working from the trailor. I didn't have the balance, I knew, to be up in the barn, strattling myself on two beams. These beams were about 5 inches thick, and spaced so that the sticks could be placed on them so that the tobacco could hang in the barn, where it would dry out. There are several tiers of beams, too, so often we would have up to three people up in the barn, relaying the sticks all the way up to the top tier, where they would set the stick on the beam at just the right distance away from each other to allow air to pass through so that the plants could dry out, die, and rot.
But as I said, I was on the trailor, and it was sometimes ten feet to the first tier. This meant that me, being five feet tall at the time, would have to get a five foot stick up ten feet so that the first person could grab it. I would pick up the stick so that the pointy end would point to the left, the direction I would be leading with. I had to hoist this stick, which weighed about 80-120 lbs, up above my head, where I would control it with my left hand while using the palm of my right hand to push it ever higher until I was balancing it on the palm of my hand until the person above could grab it. He grabbed it fairly quickly, obviously, but this was still very difficult to accomplish. Usually it was easier, though, because most of the barns were only about six or seven feet to the first tier. However, as you looked up to see the person grab the stick, the stick would shake, and dirt and chemicals would fall and drip off of the plant, getting in your eye again and stinging it some more. This entire process really made me appreciate a good shower.
Then we waited until winter while the tobacco died. It went from a large, smooth, leafy, brittle green, to a shrivelled, crinkly, fragile, rotting brown. It had become disgusting, even more so than it was when it was alive. It's like the difference between a human body that just died and one that's been decaying for a few months. The recently dead already makes you very uneasy, but to see the ravages of nature on the dead is a sight that not many are prepared for. There aren't really words to describe my attitude towards the tobacco plant, because I can't find one that accurately reflects my level of disgust. I seriously cannot believe that people are able to smoke the stuff, since I can't even stand being near it.
The sticks would be removed, which was much easier since they were now a lot lighter. We took the sticks into the shed, where it was warm because of the fire in the fireplace, and where it smelled disgusting because it always had tobacco in it. We then stripped the leaves from the plant. We bundled the leaves together, and tied them using another leaf, so that the entire bundle consisted of nothing but leaves. My dad then collected them and shipped them, and took them to an auction, though I never experienced this first hand, so I really don't know what it was like.
Years passed, and every year it was the same process. Until finally, three years ago, I told my dad that I couldn't go on helping him anymore. It came at a fortunate time, because my father had just received an offer from the government. Now, my father gets paid for not growing tobacco, and instead grows hay, something he can do himself.
Even though I remember loathing the tobacco, strangely, I remember most deeply the feel of my bare feet digging into the cool sand as the planter trudged along. There was something primal, something carnal, a closeness of my body to nature in some way that I can't even begin to understand. I felt like I was a part of the earth, but I always remembered that I was the part that was poisoning the poor people who had become addicted to a lethal product.