I started working on my grandfather’s tobacco farm as soon as I was old enough to carry a leaf. My first paid job was unloading slides for 35 cents per hour. That was when I was 6 or 7 years old. Within a year or two I was promoted to the field, along with my brother, sister and several first cousins (all of whom were younger than me). I have great memories of those days and that life developed a powerful work ethic in all of us. At age 16 I got my driver’s license and could get a job in town. I still worked on the farm, but could also hold down a fast-food job making the incredible sum of $3.65 per hour (minimum wage at the time). That was a fat raise over the $2/hour I made working in tobacco. I left for college in 1978 and my days working in tobacco were over.
There’s still a lot of tobacco grown around here. But the farms are far larger now. Back when I was growing up it was possible for a family to make a living growing 10 acres or so of tobacco. Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop and that’s about all a family could handle–even a large family like ours. But these days the farmers grow hundreds of acres. And the days of farm families tending their crops are long gone. I haven’t seen farm children working in the fields since I left for college. In fact, I haven’t even seen an adult farm owner in the field since then. Now all the labor is done by crews from Mexico, who stay the summer then return home.
In some ways tobacco farming is more mechanized now than it was back then. The leaves are cured in giant bales now for example and it’s no longer important to make sure they remain pretty and untorn. The cares we took to assure quality don’t seem to matter anymore.
When I was a kid the goal was to have the crop completely in by Labor Day. If the crop was delayed for some reason, the start of school would be delayed too. But now, since farm families don’t do the labor any more, that doesn’t matter. These days it’s common for harvesting to continue into October.
But even with all the changes, one thing about growing tobacco hasn’t changed. It’s a labor intensive process and there are no machines that can do the jobs of topping, suckering and pulling (harvesting) the tobacco. That must all be done by human hands.
Cotton isn’t grown around here and I have no personal knowledge or experience with it. I know from history however that growing cotton was also once a labor-intensive process, requiring lots of hard manual hand labor. Evidently that is no longer true. These days cotton-picking is done by machines like the John Deere 7760, which picks the cotton and packages it into large round plastic-wrapped bales. According to an article I just read, cotton growers usually own several of these machines, to enable them to harvest the thousands of acres of cotton grown on modern farms. The machines cost $640,000 each.
I’m thankful for the life-lessons I learned growing up as a farm kid who actually did farm labor. I suppose kids benefit in some ways from not working on farms. But as we now enter a time in which very few children will ever know that life, I do wonder if we aren’t losing something important.