Tobacco in Transition

Black and white photo of gloved hand and drying tobacco leaves

John Siceloff

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

Large, bright green tobacco leaves have covered miles of southern fields since the Indians first introduced the plant to colonists settling Jamestown. Every spring for over 360 years, farmers and their seasonal help have planted this cash crop; every fall they have picked and cured (dried) it. Changes in methods have been gradual and infrequent. Until now.

In recent years, farmers have been deluged with fully automated mechanical harvestors, bulk curing barns, bulk containers, new strains of tobacco, new types of weed-killers, fertilizers and tractors. To justify the huge investment required for the new machines, farmers are forced to increase the acreage they plant. Small farmers are pushed out, and bigger farmers become overextended, heavily indebted to city banks. For either group, a shift in the cost of production or in the price they receive for their tobacco poses an extreme threat, and in the past two years, the cost-price squeeze has triggered a new militancy from tobacco growers.

These dynamics indicate that, before it is completed, the mechanization of tobacco growing and harvesting promises to alter radically the old pattern of farm life and production.



Tobacco growers are the last group of small farmers in the United States. While the average size of a farm in the U.S. rose to 385 acres, tobacco farmers kept putting in five acres and raising up a passel of children to help with the cropping.

Those five acres were a saving grace to poor families in many parts of the South. They got cash in hand for tobacco, and got it without a lot of land. And they could grow tobacco on land that cotton farmers, for instance, wouldn't even try to sharecrop. Take the piedmont in Virginia: red clay that you can swim in after a rain, and so many hills that a ten-acre clearing is an enormous field.

An abundant supply of cheap labor fueled these small farm operations, and tobacco still holds the record as the most labor-intensive crop in America. Production of the U.S. tobacco crop this past year required more man-hours than the nation's cotton and foodgrain crops put together.

But with new industries locating in the South and white-only trades opening to blacks, the supply of agricultural labor has dried up, hastening the demand for mechanical cultivators. "Field hands is going at two dollars, two-fifty an hour," says a farmer in the North Carolina piedmont. "Field hands! And at that price we can't even find enough of 'em to go round."

Although their number declines each year, hundreds of farmers still manage to get by with the standard labor-intensive planting and harvesting methods. "We've been right lucky with help," says Sherwood Fryar, "but it's getting harder to find anyone." Sherwood and Pat Fryar's farm in Clinton, N.C. is in the rich coastal plain area. "Families aren't near big enough now to handle the tobacco cropping," Pat adds. "My children aren't old enough to work; one's ten and the other's four."

Following the traditional dependence on few mechanical aids, Sherwood puts out seed beds at the beginning of each year and covers them with protective cheesecloth. In April, he transplants the seedlings with a tractor-pulled device. During the next three months, he both sprays and cuts back the plants to make sure most of the growth is in the leaves, not the stalks and flowers.

Like most small growers, Sherwood and his family do almost all the farm work until harvesting time. Then the work load explodes. Off and on during the next six weeks they need 15 additional people: croppers, stringers, stick-boys and barn monkeys.

This crew has to perform a harvesting and curing operation of great complexity. At the pace of a fast walk, Sherwood's tractor pulls ten people on a wagon through the field. Four pickers race to gather mature leaves from the stalks. Sherwood orchestrates it all, stacking full sticks, urging stringers not to slacken pace.

This operation must be repeated several times for each field. Bottom leaves on the tobacco plant ripen six weeks before the top ones. A farmer must stage four or five passes through his fields before he gathers all the tobacco leaves.

The harvesting crew works for the Fryars two days a week. The rest of the week, two other growers employ them. During their two days, the Fryars fill six old-style curing barns with the sticks of hung tobacco. Barn monkeys hang the sticks on rafters, "as careful as you was putting clothes in a trunk." Then oil burners gradually heat the barns up to 1750. Within a week the leaves are cured out, brown and ready to go to auction.



Flue-cured tobacco makes up two-thirds of the American crop and has been the prime target for mechanization in cultivation practices. In the past five years, innovations in the technology of flue-cured tobacco machinery have followed one another in bewildering succession. A Georgia tractor salesman sums it up: "Used to be tobacco raising was an occupation. Now it's a business." 

The future direction of tobacco farming is illustrated by Skeet and Jack Woodhams' operation in Lee County, South Carolina. In the past six years, the Woodhams' tobacco acreage has increased from 50 to 240 acres. To avoid frost, they plant tobacco seed in Florida and then truck the seedlings to South Carolina. They harvest the tobacco leaves with an array of mechanical pickers and pack them in a new type of curing device called a bulk barn. The farm has 25 such barns as well as two truck-trailers to get the tobacco to auction. The whole operation is run by 21 people, a few more than would be required to harvest ten acres using traditional methods.

Skeet estimates he and his brother have sunk more than $250,000 into tobacco machinery. "You got to go in all the way or get out," he says. "You can't stay in with a few acres."

Many farmers, however, still remain wary of the new techniques. Indeed, the attitude is akin to that of the crowd which surrounded Cyrus McCormick in 1834: Prove it! At a recent demonstration of mechanical harvesting south of Florence, S.C., station wagons and pickups clustered around the field. Farmers examined sleds of picked leaves, looked at the stalks for damage and checked for leaves left on the ground. They listened to the spiel of the machinery salesman and in groups of two or three talked over whether it was worth it.

Many of the farmers were visibly astonished at how well the machine did its job. They had a right to be: they reached adulthood when cotton and tobacco, the southern farmer's staples, were both hand-crops. In the 1950s they witnessed the introduction of cotton-picking machinery, and they swore it could not be done for tobacco. Yet two decades later they were gathered sweating in this tobacco field, watching a machine do the work of 20 croppers.

As a result of the new machinery, a quantum leap has occurred in the maximum tobacco acreage a farm can handle. Just a few years ago, 20 acres of tobacco represented a superhuman work load. Now 40 acres is considered the practical minimum for mechanical harvesting.

Farms as large as Skeet and Jack Woodhams' 240 acres are still the exception in tobacco cultivation, since federal regulations restrict the amount of tobacco each farmer may produce. An initial allotment averaging three acres per farmer is doled out, but a grower can negotiate each year with other allotment owners to lease their acreage. These larger farmers are increasing the acreage they manage by 20 percent a year.

As big operations get bigger, many small tobacco farmers look for part-time industrial jobs. "It's a hard thing," one woman says. "Last week my husband asked at the new copper plant for part-time work. He's been farming for 30 years, and it wasn't easy for him to do it. He's not going to give up farming, but we talked it over and decided it's not enough to live on these days."

Those who still plant their usual acreage sometimes take advantage of tobacco's short growing season to take on another job in the fall and winter. For the past several years, for example, Sherwood Fryar has worked five months a year for the US Forestry Service. Almost a third of the tobacco growers have some form of off-farm work.

For many, economics has narrowed their alternatives. The average education attained by tobacco growers is considerably below that of all US workers —7.6 years of school compared with 12.2. On the whole they are older than the rest of the work force —the average age is 47. And programs of adult education are nonexistant in many parts of the South.

Switching crops is not the answer either. For a small acreage cash crop, nothing compares to tobacco. Some farmers have hoped to supplement their diets and incomes by growing vegetables, but while fresh corn, tomatoes and beans reduce grocery bills, small farm produce simply doesn't pay the bills. Most stores buy fruits and vegetables in bulk from corporations such as Del Monte.



These changes caused by the tightening labor market and introduction of mechanical harvesting are evident everywhere tobacco is grown in the South. Metter, Ga. provides a good example. The town of 2,400 is entirely dependent on the mosaic of tobacco and cotton and corn fields in surrounding Candler County.

Metter does not look much different than it did 20 years ago, save the new parking area downtown where the depot used to be. But in that time the pattern of farming has changed. Roy Wood, in charge of tobacco allotments for the county, says, "We've got about 600 farms on the books, but due to the leasing arrangements we don't have 600 farmers actually growing tobacco. We have 175 that's actually growing it. You can see the trend there." These farmers have moved up from their original allotment of three or four acres to 15 or 20 acres. In the past five years, three growers have increased their acreages until they now total about a twelfth of the county's crop. These three growers have the county's five mechanical harvesters.

At least 20 percent of the farmers have bulk barns. By the railroad depot, several more barns sit waiting for delivery. The image of tobacco around Metter is moving from the old-style curing barns, their tall narrow frames and protruding porches resembling churches in the fields, to squat metal sheds collected in rows like mobile homes.

In Metter, as in other towns, the large landowners are switching from having sharecroppers work most of their tobacco acreage to doing it themselves with machines. "We haven't sharecropped for five or six years," says one farmer with substantial acreage. "It's getting hard to find a large enough family to handle the tobacco. If you crop out ten acres to a family and harvest 150 acres by machine, those sharecroppers are hard put to keep up. They are always asking for a tractor or something."

While the number of farmers in Candler County has shrunk, the remaining ones have become a tighter group, more aware of their common interests. Farmers are still spoken of as "boys" until they reach their forties; but farming is no longer a last-ditch profession for those who have survived. "A tobacco farmer today handles more money in a year than his father did in a lifetime," says one Metter grower.

These huge sums create new financial strains on the large-scale farmer: "If a man puts in $100,000 into new tobacco machinery," Gene Odum says, "he can't possibly repay that in a year. He'll stretch it over ten years, say. Then, at $10,000 a year, that means ten acres of his crop he's planting just for the bank. Now that's a load on your back."



The changes underway in Metter are not unique. And with the price of inputs like fuel oil and fertilizer twice what they were three years ago, the risks of the business are increasing. Whether it's worth making the gamble at all depends in the final analysis on the price the farmer receives for his crop at the annual auction.

Inside the typical auctioneer's warehouse, farmers sit in a row on chairs worn to the smoothness of worked stone. In their conversation, the latest maneuvers of Washington, the weather and the quality of each man's crop are scrutinized; but no one pays attention. The group focuses on the procession of the buyers up and down the rows of piled tobacco. For a grower with 15 acres, a cut of a penny a pound on the auction floor means $400 less for his crop.

Ten buyers follow the auctioneer, their arms raised to signal a sale, their shirts patterned with sweat patches. The auctioneer's singsong is punctuated by shouts as each buyer identifies the grade of the tobacco he is buying. “Mark that FY!" “T!“ “RG on that!" In a week, a set of buyers may divide up more than 100,000 pounds of tobacco from one warehouse. For the farmers, it is a scene calculated to produce ulcers.

The Flue-Cured Stabilization Corporation has ironed out certain fluctuations in tobacco prices and relieved some of the farmer's anxieties. The group, which has more than 500,000 growers as members, establishes a minimum support price each season. If the bids from the private companies don't get that high, the farmer can sell his tobacco to the Corporation at the minimum price. The Corporation, in turn, pays the farmer with money borrowed from the Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corporation, and eventually sells the tobacco to domestic or foreign agents. In 1975, prices on the open market were so bad that the Corporation wound up buying 18 percent of the crop, a substantial climb from the two percent bought in 1974.

In the midst of this recent price crunch, tobacco farmers have looked to the auction as the place their initiatives can make a difference, and to the warehouseman as their main supporter. The warehouseman is one of the curious legacies of the long tradition of auctioning tobacco. He does not buy the farmers' tobacco when they bring it to the warehouse, but he provides the auctioneer and a buyer who bids along with the company buyers. His buyer is supposed to pressure the tobacco companies into paying high prices for the crops.

The warehouseman has become an easy target for upset farmers. In August, 1975, for instance, a group of tobacco growers in Lumberton, N.C. confronted warehouseman Leroy Townsend, Jr. These farmers had listened for months to tobacco company statements that auction prices would go up as the better quality leaf hit the market. But as the season wore on, prices remained five percent lower than those of 1974. The growers demanded that Townsend, as warehouseman, bid up the sale price of tobacco. The protest erupted in angry shouting, and Townsend was knocked to the ground.

Similar protests have taken place all over the South in the past two years. In July, 1975, farmers in Waycross, Ga. disrupted warehouse sales. In the tiny town of Tabor City, N.C., just over the South Carolina border, farmers did likewise. In 1974, growers in Statesboro and several other Georgia towns picketed the local warehouses in an effort to force warehousemen to give them a better deal.

Warehousemen, however, maintain they no longer have the leverage to jack up low prices. “Let's face it,” says a Georgia warehouseman. “The companies set the prices. Every day the buyers phone up their companies and get the lowdown on how much to buy the next day and how much to pay for it." Yet growers must market their tobacco shortly after it is cured or its quality will deteriorate. They haven't the equipment to store it properly for long periods of time. Lately, tobacco farmers have realized that they cannot wait for the local warehouseman to protect their interests. To gain relief, they've directed their efforts at the tobacco companies and the government, the institutions that most determine their well-being.

Many have organized highly visible events to publicize their disappointment with company prices and the government allotment program. In some places, tobacco farmers have plowed their acreage under rather than lose money harvesting it. Others have staged mass bonfires, burning tons of tobacco in their fields instead of curing it. "We'd rather burn it than give it away," says H.E. Gandy, who took part in a protest burning in Darlington, S.C.

C.W. Todd, a Columbus County, N.C. farmer, organized another protest. Before the planting season, he was told by "the Agriculture Department and Earl Butz and the tobacco companies" to grow significantly more tobacco in 1975 than in previous years. "The companies assured us at all these meetings that if we planted it we would get paid for it by the government support," he says. The government increased allotments saying farmers could expect a jump in foreign sales. But these sales never came through, and Todd had to take five cents a pound less for his tobacco than in 1974. His production costs had increased by 25 percent.

Todd has decided that the companies and government "wanted an oversupply of tobacco, so it would depress the price. It was just that simple. I think the government was either ignorant or in cahoots, and I don't know which."

Todd and 150 other area growers banded together at the warehouse auction. With their support, Todd announced he would not sell his tobacco. "Ten or 15 buyers were not gonna try and walk over 150 head of farmers so they stopped, turned around and left the warehouse.

"I told the buyers we didn't have nothin' personal against them but just against the companies they represented. We wanted them to go to the companies and tell them that we had something against 'em. And what we had was the fact that they weren't keepin' their end of the bargain."

It's already too late for the many operators of small family farms that could not keep up with the massive investments and could not buy up extra allotments last year. But those that have survived, like C.W. Todd, have begun to take actions that will last beyond one warehouse sales day. They have made appeals to such established groups as the Grange and the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Organization (NFO) in hopes of drawing them into their fight.

And they are forming organizations representing their own particular interests. Todd and his friends, for instance, are in the first stages of organizing a Tobacco Growers Association as an ongoing group "instead of depending on the government or on some of our present organizations that are doing everything from selling insurance to representing all commodities. If we have a tobacco growers organization we can look after ourselves."

Todd continues: "We are coming together and hope to organize the whole flue-cured area. We hope to have the organization for maybe some more protests or to pressure politicians for different kinds of legislation for the coming year."

Other farmers have gone to court. Two groups, in South Carolina and Kentucky, have filed class action suits in federal courts against the tobacco companies. The suits, still in court, charge that tobacco companies have engaged in collusion to fix prices at an artificially low level. They charge that the companies agree on a ceiling price for a given tobacco grade. Then, at the auction, buyers cooperate to allocate the tobacco among all the companies.

Dr. Milton Shuffett, an expert witness in the Kentucky suit, explains that growers are acting on the realization that the tobacco companies wield great power over their lives. "The auction system is the only outlet for a farmer's tobacco," he says. "All the folks are in one little chain in tobacco."

So far, it is impossible to identify many results of tobacco growers' new forcefulness. "Butz has started talking about cutting allotments by 15 percent," which would decrease the supply and consequently raise prices, explains C.W. Todd. "But that's still not enough." It's too early to tell if growers will be able to avoid more fiascos like the one of 1975, when the permitted quota was raised ten percent though demand for tobacco on the world market actually declined. And it's still too early to see if family farmers who operate fewer than 20 acres will be able to stay in business at all.

Whatever the results, these protesting growers, unwilling to accept blindly the orders of government and the tobacco companies, represent something very new in the tobacco industry and in southern farming. Though too late for many, those who remain seem determined to stay in tobacco and stand up for their interests. "Tobacco is how we live," says one grower. "It's not just what we put in the ground." But beyond their attachment to the land and the pride of a good crop, the determination of these businessmen-farmers is rooted in the large investments they have already made. They changed farming techniques when told to. Now they want some returns.