Author Topic: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky  (Read 1385 times)

Pipe Mama

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Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky
« on: July 26, 2015, 04:52:32 AM »
Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky

I lived in Kentucky during my High School years and worked in my off-hours in the tobacco fields of neighbors. I also raised two crops of my own, one of which was used to buy my first car, the second to help pay for my first year of college. My experience is with Kentucky Burley as grown in South Central Kentucky in the early to mid 1970's.

Part 1:

As I mentioned earlier, I am in South Central Kentucky, Southeast of Bowling Green in Barren County. During the 70's, I lived in Allen County (county seat Scottsville) and spent my off-hours working in the tobacco fields. I raised two crops on my own, one of which paid for my first car.  My experience is somewhat limited and very dated. Likely there are others on the forum with different experiences and opinions and welcome any comments they may have. Also, my memory has probably faded a bit, so I might get some aspects a little off. However, I think I can relate my experiences relatively accurately.

Raising tobacco is very work-intensive and almost a year-round activity. I'll cover as much as I remember starting with seed bed prep, move on to planting, cultivating, pest control, suckering, topping, cutting, curing, stripping and selling. Our goal was to get the tobacco to market and get it sold before Christmas.  Sometimes we didn't make it, sometimes we did. Hopefully my posts will be of interest to those who've never raised tobacco and perhaps those who have, but used a different technique. 

The first activity I remember in raising tobacco was preparation of seed beds. This usually took place at the first part of the year often when the weather was still a bit cold. To begin, we plowed and cultivated a series of 'beds' that were probably about 6' X 20'.  The dimensions were driven by the size of available materials.  Once the ground was prepared, we set small trays with cans of 'gas' at regular intervals along the centerline of the bed.  The 'gas' was a defoliant that killed the roots of all weeds and grasses. Once placed out, the bed was covered with plastic, the edges of the plastic sealed by covering them with soil, and the cans pierced by pushing them into their trays. The plastic placed over the bed held the gas in long enough for it to permeate the ground thus killing off any other plant growth.  Once complete we had a number of small seed beds covered with plastic allowing the gas to do its work.

The beds were then left idle until time to sow the seeds. I'll cover seed sowing in the next installment.

***The only way to see the photos is to download the PDF I've attached to this post***
« Last Edit: July 09, 2017, 05:33:39 AM by Pipe Mama »
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Part 2:

In my last post on growing tobacco, the seedbeds had been prepared with defoliant and covered with plastic. The next step was to sow the seeds.

Tobacco seeds are incredibly small. They are about the size of a pin-prick (didn't know they had them did you?).  Seriously though, enough seeds to plant an entire bed will fit in a quarter teaspoon or so. There were various methods used by folks to sow the seeds but we did so by carefully and thoroughly mixing them with fertilizer. We had a small tumbler in which we could pour about ten pounds or so of fertilizer.  As we poured the fertilizer we progressively added seeds then tumbled the mixture thoroughly. After removing the plastic cover and the gas cups, we then used a small rotary hand spreader to spread the fertilizer containing the seeds into the seedbed. This usually took place just after the last frost date according to the Farmer's Almanac, usually in mid March as I recall (could be wrong on this).

Here's a picture providing a perspective of tobacco seed size:

Once the fertilizer/seeds were sown, we 'framed' the beds with thin timbers.  These were just the longest, straightest, small timbers (six to eight inches in diameter) that we could find and used them to make a perimeter around the bed.  Sometimes we used 4X4's or railroad ties; whatever we had.  The idea was to provide something upon which we could tack an expanse of 'canvas' across the bed to protect it from the colder night-time temperatures and possible light frost. The 'canvas' as we called it was a very light cloth that was almost opaque. I guess you could call it sort of a cheesecloth, but it was heavy enough to use outside but still let sunlight through. 

The following picture is from the Virginia/Carolina Chemical Corp showing a typical seedbed in Virginia.  Ours differed only in not having a fence around it. I can only suspect that these folks had cows in the same field:

Once the above was completed, we awaited the time to plant.  Ideal timing for the planting was after the risk of frost, when the daytime temperatures reached the mid-70's or higher, and after the seedlings reached adequate size. By the time we pulled the plants, they were usually pushing the 'canvas' up and were probably about eight inches high or so.

In my next post, I'll discuss how we prepared the field and transplanted the seedlings.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2015, 04:22:01 PM by Pipe Mama »

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Part 3:

With the seed beds sown and plants beginning to germinate we began laying out where our field was going to be and how big it was going to be. Before I go on with the agricultural aspects of raising tobacco I think it makes sense to talk a little about government controls as they tended to have a strong impact on how we chose our field and its size. In the 70's when I was working with tobacco we had what was referred to as a 'base.'  Your base was expressed in pounds of final product. I believe it had previously been allocated in acres, but farmers soon began finding ways of making the fields more efficient so they moved to weight. I don't know this for a fact, it's just what I heard others say.  Nonetheless, your allocated base was the limit that you could sell.  As I recall, if you produced significantly less in a given season your base was reduced to that level for succeeding years, so farmers often horse-traded at the end of the season among those who were over and under to balance out. I believe that you were allowed to go 10% under or 10% over.  You couldn't sell more than 10% over and your base was not changed.

Tobacco is relatively hard on the soil. So, we tried to plant our tobacco in various places on the farm taking soil drainage, proximity to ponds for emergency irrigation and location access into consideration.  Fields that were previously planted in tobacco were re-planted in other crops in rotation to keep from depleting the soil.

So, once a field location of the appropriate size was identified, we plowed, fertilized and 'disced' it to prepare it for planting. We usually did this early in the year to let the soil rest a bit. I'd say it was in March or so that we began prepping.

Once we were past the 'last frost' date we began to plant. The field was cultivated one last time to get the soil as soft, smooth and fluffy as we could. We had a team of people that then began pulling plants.  The 'canvas' was pulled back from the beds and the pullers selected the strongest plants and gently pulled them from the soil, laying them in cardboard box bottoms lined with damp newspaper. Once a box was full it was covered with damp newspaper and transported to the field. 

The plants were then planted using a 'setter,' which was an implement that hitched to the back of the tractor. It had two seats facing backwards in which sat the 'setters.'  Behind them, between the tractor driver and the setters was a tank which contained water laced with a light planting fertilizer. The operation typically took at least five people.  One driving the tractor (chosen by his/her ability to guide it in straight rows), two people on the setter and two people to bring trays of plants to the setters, which we laid in trays in front of the setters for easy access.  Once the driver lined up the tractor for the first row the setter was lowered and began to start 'setting.'  The setter had a chain driven mechanism that cycled a group of small rubber 'fingers' in which the plants were placed by the setters.  The mechanism would rotate the plant down to the ground behind a small plow share. As the plow dug a shallow trench the plant was set into the ground, a squirt of water/fertilizer was poured on it and the ground closed behind it as the setter proceeded down the row.  At the end of the row, the driver lifted the setter people and all with the tractor's lift, turned the tractor around, lined up for the next row and lowered the setter back down as he/she reached the beginning of the row. As they reached the end of the return row, additional plants were added to the trays and the water was checked/re-filled.

In relatively short order an entire field of plants was planted and began to look like a tobacco field. Since I live in a farming area I just saw that a field nearby was set last week so I'll try to get a picture of the newly set field to add. Next I'll discuss the care and cultivation of the plants during the growing season.

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Part 4:

Once the field was set we entered what I refer to as the care-taking phase which comprised the bulk of the growing season over the summer. During this phase we cultivated, weeded, controlled insects and otherwise tended the crop.

While the plants were young and small we would cultivate the field after each rainfall. Each time it would rain, the soil would tend to pack down. We would typically wait after the rain until the ground was relatively dry with enough moisture left for the soil to still crumble. Cultivation broke up the soil and also made a big dent in weed control. Small tractors such as the International Farmall were ideal for this task. The tractor was set up for cultivation by attaching a number of small plow shares which were used to break up the ground. Thinking back to the setting process it now becomes clear that it was important that the rows were planted consistently at the appropriate width to accommodate the tractor and cultivating plows. The following picture shows (a well restored) Farmall equipped with a set of cultivator plows:

Each morning I would get up before school and walk through as much of the field as I had time observing, pulling weeds and looking for insects. The greatest pest was typically tobacco worms. As I found tobacco worms I would pick them off and pinch their heads off. It was a pretty disgusting thing to do and my hands were often coated with slime by the time I got to the end of a row. Of course, once the worms began to appear, we would spray the field with an insecticide to control them.  However, we still had to manually remove the ones that remained or appeared over the summer. The following is a picture of a tobacco worm:

When I got home from school I was back out in the field, picking up where I left off until I finished.  While walking the field I was also observing. I was looking for overall condition of the plants, evidence of under or over-hydration, and any other condition that would negatively affect the plants. I was also pulling any large weeds and otherwise doing what I could to inhibit weed growth.  In short, anything that robbed nutrients from the plants or inhibited growth in any way was dealt with. As the summer wore on and the plants grew larger this task became hotter and stickier.

As the growing cycle progressed, care-taking activities changed accordingly. We stopped cultivating once the plants got a foot or two tall as it became impractical to cultivate without damaging the plants. The larger plants began smothering out the weeds, so weeding activities reduced as well. 

Once the plants became fairly mature they began producing ancillary buds that we called 'suckers.'  Suckers are buds that appear in between existing leaves and the stem. Once they began to appear, we sprayed the crop with 'sucker dope' which was actually an auxin (natural plant hormone) that impeded production of ancillary buds. Despite spraying, some would still appear and were snapped off by hand. The task of weeding that dropped off was now replaced by 'suckering.'   The idea was to minimize the number of buds and leaves so that all available nutrients went to the main buds. In other words, removal of the suckers allowed the main leaves to grow larger. Here's a picture of a new 'sucker:

This cycle of tending continued throughout the summer.  In the event that we had a really dry period that would affect plant growth significantly, we attempted to irrigate by pumping water from a nearby pond (remember location of the field?) using a pump and hoses.  This was relatively rare and we did it very sparingly because irrigation also depleted our pond, which was the water source for our cattle as well.

The last task that I recall from the care-taking phase was 'topping.'  Not to be confused with toppings added to processed tobacco, 'topping' was the procedure of removing the terminal bud.  The terminal bud of a plant is the one at the very top.  It produces an auxin (hormone) that causes the plant to grow up instead of out. Removing the terminal bud eliminates this hormone causing the plant to reduce its upward growth thus promoting lateral growth. For a shrub, removing terminal buds causes them to bush out. Removing the terminal bud from a tobacco plant encourages the existing leaves to grow larger and broader. In other words, topping the plant resulted in larger leaves. Once the plants became about head high, the terminal bud would start flowering.  Once the majority (ideally all) of the crop had flowering tops we would again walk the field, reaching up and manually snapping the tops out of the plants. It was a simple but tiring process as you had your arms up in the air as you progressed down the rows.

At this point we hopefully had a nice, solid crop of plants, all at a relatively similar height. I remember this being a pleasant sight that provided a great deal of personal satisfaction for the work done up to that time. From this point, until harvesting, we just let the leaves grow as large and broad as possible.

In the next installment I'll discuss harvesting and curing.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2015, 04:24:20 PM by Pipe Mama »

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Part 5:

By August the crop would have been tall (about head high) and full.  Once the crop was full and green we watched the weather for a dry period during the month of August. This usually fell just about the time of school starting for those of us still young enough to attend. I can remember going to school to find that some of my classmates were excused to cut tobacco. I'll bet that doesn't happen today!

Cutting began by loading a hay wagon with tobacco sticks and breaking out the 'tobacco knives' and 'spikes.' The sticks were slender sticks split from hickory. The 'knives' looked like little hatchets.  They had a sheet metal blade that was inset into a wooden handle, typically hickory. Heres a sample 'knife:'

Image from 'Jitterbugdude';

Here's a typical 'spike:'

We began by laying some sticks out in the rows at periodic intervals. The idea was to use one stick for four to five plants.

We usually had several people to cut so we broke into two-person teams.  Starting at the beginning of a row, each team had one cutter and one spiker. The cutter grabbed the stalk about mid-level with one hand, then cut the stalk about three to five inches above the ground with a hatchet-like chop. Power of the swing was adjusted so that the knife just cut the stalk without digging into the ground, thus dulling the blade. It didn't take long to get the hang of it.  The cutter then handed the cut plant back to the spiker who was standing ready, behind the cutter with a spike mounted on a tobacco stick; one end of the stick against the ground, the other with the spike pointing into the air. The spiker grabbed the plant by the lower end, set the stalk on top of the spike about ten inches from the end and skewered the spike through the stalk and pulling the stalk through so that it was now penetrating the stick. If you imagine the stalk like a needle and the stick being a thread, the spiker was essentially creating a hole (actually a split) in the stalk and 'threading' it with the stick. 

The process above was repeated until the spiker had four or five plants (depending upon size of the plants) on the stick, then left the stick propped up by the stalks, looking somewhat like a stack of piled military rifles. Another stick was chosen and the process repeated until all plants were cut, threaded onto sticks then left in the field.

When finished, it looked something like this:

In the next installment I'll write about housing the tobacco and curing.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2015, 04:27:49 PM by Pipe Mama »

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Part 6:

Once the tobacco was cut and spiked onto the sticks we next loaded them onto a wagon for transport to the barn. I’ve seen wagons with racks designed for hanging the tobacco sticks but we just used a hay wagon. We usually used about four people very much like hauling hay. We had one person drive the tractor, one on the wagon to stack the tobacco and two on the ground picking up the sticks and passing them up to the stacker on the wagon. Our goal was to get the tobacco into the barn before the next rain. If caught in the rain, bad things could happen.  The tobacco usually got muddy from splattering and the soaking could completely destroy the crop. 

As an aside, I once worked with a group that had only one man both driving the tractor and stacking. With a bungee of sorts attached to the wheel of the tractor he would get the tractor going the right direction, then hop back onto the wagon to stack. If the tractor began to stray, he would jump back to the tractor for a correction then back to the wagon. In the interim, we just stacked the sticks on the wagon’s edge until he returned and caught up. I always thought that this was a recipe for disaster, but it never happened. I think a lot of farm accidents were caused by activities like this because the farmer didn’t have (or couldn’t afford) more help.

Once the wagon was full, we stopped stacking and followed the wagon to the barn. If wet weather was looming we would load as many wagons as we had in order to get the crop off of the ground.  If the weather turned bad afterward, we could cover the wagons with tarps or pull them into every available barn.

The tobacco was then pulled into the barn. Tobacco barns were typically designed in a specific way.  They were built with large squarish doors on each end so that when opened, a tractor could be pulled through and temporarily parked with the wagon in the center.   They also had several ‘tiers’ of horizontal poles on which we could hang the tobacco. The sticks were laid across the horizontal poles in such a way as to allow the skewered plants to hang down. The arrangement was much like a hanging file folder.  The third design feature was a series of narrow, rectangular doors on each of the sides of the barn that spanned from the ground to near the eve.  These doors were used in the curing process which I’ll mention later.

With the wagon parked in the center, one person stood on the wagon and a number of other people climbed into the rafter poles.  The number of people in the tiers depended upon how many tiers the barn had.  Typically for us it was three; the next description will be for a three-tiered barn. The person on the wagon picked up a stick, laden with four to five plants, and handed it up to the person on the first tier. This person handed to the person on the second tier, who then passed the stick to the third.  The stick was then laid across the tier poles at the third level.  The next stick passed from the wagon was passed only up to the second level, the next to the first, then back up to the third again, progressively filling all three levels from the outer wall of the barn to the center. One section of tiers was called a room.  When a room was filled, the people in the tiers climbed over one room and started again.

The above process was continued until the barn was filled on both sides and the center. It could be hot, dusty work and was fraught with danger. In handling the tobacco, the people in the tiers were usually standing, straddling the flexible tier poles, usually not holding on to anything in order to have hands free to handle the tobacco. If the person got dizzy or otherwise slipped or lost equilibrium, they could fall from their tier level. There have been more than a few killed falling from the tier poles. In a freak accident in the Fall of 1971 I lost a classmate who was hanging tobacco. He was in the top tier and had one hand on the tin roof, with his other hand on a tobacco stick being handed up by his father on the tier below him. Lightning struck the barn and both were knocked out of the barn to the ground. I’m not sure if they died from the lightning or the fall but both died. There’s a memorial to him in our yearbook.

Once all the tobacco was in the barn the process of curing began.  Curing was a very simple process for us. While the leaves were still green we opened the doors during the day to let the moisture from the leaves escape, then closed them at night. Once the leaves began to change color and become dry we began to open the doors on humid days and close the doors whenever the humidity dropped. We wanted to introduce and hold humidity into the leaves but not let them get wet, so we made absolutely sure the doors were closed during rain storms. Once a storm was over, we opened the doors to allow the plants to suck up the moisture.  On a nice humid but clear day we opened the big entrance doors and the side doors as well. On hot dry afternoons we closed the doors.  We wanted the plants to cure, but not to get so dry that they were extremely brittle.

After two months or so the leaves lost their green color and turned brown. Once they were consistently brown we monitored the moisture content of the leaves until they were ready for stripping. 

Here's a picture of tobacco hanging in a barn. Notice that the doors are open and that the tobacco is largely cured as indicated by its brown color:

  I will cover the stripping process next.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2015, 04:28:39 PM by Pipe Mama »

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Part 7:

Once the leaves and stalks had turned a nice consistent brown color the tobacco was considered cured. The trick was to now catch it when it was "in case."  The latter term is used by farmers here to refer to the ideal moisture content. Not too dry and definitely no too wet.  When tobacco is dry, grabbing a handful of leaves will result in the leaves crumbling into dust. When in case, you can wad it in your hand and it will return to its original shape when you release it. If it gets too wet, it can mildew. If there has been a protracted dry period, the tobacco will likely be dry. The trick is to catch it soon after a rain, take it down out of the barn tiers and "book it down."

Booking down is the expression for piling the tobacco in stacks and covering it with visqueen plastic.  The idea is to pack it tightly enough to help it retain its moisture during the stripping phase.  In cases where the weather was unusually dry, I've seen the tobacco misted and/or steamed to get it in case before booking it down. The booked tobacco was also uncovered and misted from time to time to keep the moisture level up.

The stripping process began as soon as tobacco began coming down from the tiers. We usually built a stripping room in the tobacco barn for this process. The 'room' was merely an enclosure made with visqueen with a set of stripping tables, a kerosene heater and usually a radio for entertainment. Once begun, the process usually extended into the cold months. We spent long, long hours stripping tobacco.  Usually ten hour days (or more) in an attempt to get as much stripped and to market as we could before Christmas.

Stripping tobacco began by uncovering a batch of booked-down tobacco and carrying it into the stripping room where it was laid at one end of the long stripping tables. The number of people involved depended upon the number of 'grades' to be stripped. When I was raising tobacco we stripped four grades: trash, lugs, reds and tips.I'm told that they eventually stripped only three grades in later years. I suspect that they still do.  With four people standing at the table side-by-side, the person nearest the stack of tobacco picked up a stalk with one hand and removed the small fluffy leaves at the bottom with the other hand.  Once the trash were removed he/she passed the remaining stalk of leaves to the next person. The second person held the stalk in one hand and plucked off the broad, substantial leaves just above the 'trash' then handed the stalk to the next person who did the same for the smaller substantial leaves (the reds) then the last person stripped what was left (the tips).

By now each person was holding sort of an upside-down bouquet of tobacco in one hand.  The first person picked up another fresh stalk and the process was repeated. When each stripper had a handful they stopped and bound the 'hand' of tobacco by tying a spare leaf around the stalk end of the 'bouquet' of tobacco.  A stack was started of tied hands using either a pallet or a large basket of about pallet size. Plastic was laid down over it and the hands were stacked upon it until there was a cube about three to four feet high. I'm told that today they lay the hands in wooden boxes one side of which can be compressed with a small hydraulic jack to press the hands into blocks. However, we merely stacked them. We kept the stack of stripped tobacco covered with plastic and monitored it's moisture content. If it began getting dry, we would mist it slightly.  On days that it rained, we uncovered the tobacco and let it absorb the moisture in the humid air.

After a bit of stripping ones hands were covered with black tar. This tar was very difficult to get off, but we found that rubbing peanut butter between the hands caused it to roll off pretty well. 

Once we either had a truck-full or had stripped all of the tobacco we had, it was loaded on a truck and taken to the tobacco warehouse for auction. On the day of the auction a buyer would examine your tobacco, check moisture content and condition and bid a price. When I was raising it Kentucky Burley brought between $1.25 and $1.50 per pound. If I recall accurately we got about 1,000 pounds per acre.

If we were successful in getting it stripped and sold by Christmas we had a great holiday season and began thinking about those seed beds again.

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Re: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky (Pictures will soon be added)
« Reply #7 on: October 10, 2015, 04:29:29 PM »
Photos have been added :)
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Re: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky
« Reply #8 on: May 27, 2017, 03:34:07 AM »
I really do miss Steve's input on our forum.
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Re: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky
« Reply #9 on: May 27, 2017, 04:25:55 PM »
That was a great one to read again.  The work that goes into it is hard to fathom.  We're lucky these days that people are willing to do such work to provide for our enjoyment. Even with modern equipment that's a lot of work to get the crop.

Thanks for bumping it Aristokles.

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Re: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky
« Reply #10 on: July 08, 2017, 01:55:18 PM »
Because Photobucket has changed it policy about linking, I am trying to upload a PDF.
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Re: Raising/Growing Tobacco by SteveMKentucky
« Reply #11 on: July 08, 2017, 11:47:13 PM »
Thank you Mama.