I don’t smoke. Thankfully, I never have. But I was once a teenager with dreams of post secondary pursuits and tuitions that would need paying, and so, like most young people in my hometown, my summers were spent working on a tobacco farm. I’ not writing to celebrate the tobacco industry, but rather to reminisce over an experience. When I was thirteen, there was no internet. I had access to whatever television channels could be had by using an manually turned antenna. My friends and I never heard of a social movement to rally against an industry. I didn’t know of any one who’d had cancer. My employment predates the infamous Philip Morris lawsuit.
The Canadian icon, Stompin’ Tom Connors, was talking about my hometown when he sang “Tillsonburg My back still aches when I hear that word”. The farm he’d worked on was just up the highway from where I lived. I worked summers on a tobacco farm from the eighth grade through to the end of college. For a couple of those summers, I did the same job that Tom sang about; I primed or picked the tobacco leaves. It was rather unusual for a farm to have a female primer. It was the early eighties and task assignments were determined by gender. I can tell you that priming increased my bicep measurement and I was quite proud of that!
I’d finish school at the end of June and wait anxiously for the phone call that usually came a few weeks later telling me that the tobacco was ready for picking. The work season for me lasted from mid July to the end of August, just in time for school to resume. Not everyone made it back to school for the first day. The season wasn’t over until every field was completely stripped of leaves. It wasn’t unusual for some students to miss the first few weeks of school because they were still working. This practice wasn’t encouraged but neither was it frowned upon.
I was lucky to return to the same farm each summer to work for a very nice Belgian family. A number of the local people did the same year after year, and so there was a wonderful camaraderie among us. My summers were spent shoulder to shoulder with the mother of one of my classmates. She told funny stories and addressed me like an equal. I remember feeling so grown up because of it.
If you visited downtown Tillsonburg on a Saturday night, you’d see groups of transient seasonal workers walking the streets, looking for someplace to spend their newly earned money. It was commonplace to see groups of young men hopping from the bed of a pick up. Men would come from the Caribbean countries like Jamaica or from Europe. On the farm, they stayed in a simple accommodation called a bunk house, and they took meals with the farm family. I remember working with men from Belgium and France.
I was out of bed by 5 am, at the farm by 6 am and if the gang was proficient, the job was done by 3 pm. (We worked seven days a week for the entire season.) A gang included the primers in the field, the table gang and hanger in the kiln yard, tractor drivers. The man responsible for curing the tobacco carried a huge responsibility. His position was the equivalent of a brewmaster or a vinter. The golden colour of the dried leaves dictated the price they would fetch at market. He lived in the kiln yard for the entire summer and was up several times a night to make sure that the burners in the bottom of the kiln were set at the proper temperature.
Over the course of the season, I usually earned about $2000 which at the time was sufficient to cover most of my annual tuition. During those years, I worked on the table gang and as a primer. During my college years, I worked in the greenhouse, pulling tobacco plants and placing them in wooden crates in preparation for planting. I even tried my hand at planting for one season, bumping along on the back of a tractor.
Working on a farm wasn’t easy but I’ve always looked back on it with great fondness. There is great pride in a job well done. Farm labour lets you see the beginning and the end of it. Not every job does that. I also learned the value of a dollar and not to squander it. When I went to a store, I looked at a price tag and translated its value into the number of heft tobacco bundles I had to hoist onto a wagon. That certainly slowed my spending.
The group I worked with were like characters cast in a play, each holding their own charm. I learned to listen, observe, and understand. At first, some people may seem grating or unreasonable, but if you listen long enough, you’ll always hear a back story that explains their nature and takes the sting out of their words. This was perhaps the most precious and enduring lesson of all.
Do you have a memory to share? Some information to offer or perhaps a question?
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