chopping_burley_tobacco

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!

priming
The “primers” reached their hands around the stock of the plant and pulled the bottom 3 or 4 leaves. They stacked the leaves in a very specific manner, with the butts perfectly aligned. When I started priming, we stacked the leaves on a canvas strip that fastened around the leaves with a bungee cord. (In later years, the canvas strip was replaced by metal bins.) At the end of each row, we lifted the leaves onto a tractor and pulled wagon that carried them to the table gang at the kiln. (source: NCSU Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials)

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.

thekiln1
These people are preparing the leaves for being hung in the kiln. Three people stood in front of the “table”, a conveyor belt that passed the leaves and stick under a sewing machine. The first person laid a layer of leaves, 2/3 the length of a stick. The second person laid the last 1/3 , placed a stick (see stack in bottom left of photo), then added the first 1/3 of leaf layer on top of the stick. The third person added the last 2/3 of the leaf layer before the work passed under the sewing machine. When I did this job, an escalator carried the tobacco into the kiln. In this photo, a man is performing this transfer manually. (source: St. Thomas Times-Journal fonds, C8 Sh2 B2 F5 26 via elgin.ca)

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.

fluecuring1
This is a view similar to the one that greeted me when I called, “Break time!” into kiln. The hanger hung the sticks of tobacco leaves across rafters inside the kiln at equally spaced intervals. He had to work quickly and precisely. If the leaves were too tightly packed, they wouldn’t cure properly. The quality of the product would drop and garner less money at market. This was a hot and sandy job that required strength and flexibility to balance and stretch between rafters. If he was too slow, sticks went over the end of the conveyor belt and crashed to the ground. We’d all go home late on days like that. (source: St. Thomas Times-Journal fonds, C8 Sh2 B2 F4 56b via elgin.ca)

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?

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

 

DSC_0237
Me after a hard day of priming in 1981. My arms are black with gum from the tobacco leaves.
Tobacco-Harvest-02_zpsb4eb844c
This is a kiln. You can see the escalator, the table covered by a tarp roof, and to the right is the wagon carrying metal baskets full of tobacco. The first two photos in this post are actually of farm scenes from the American south. I wanted to share them because they depict aspects of my experience.
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