Grading Tobacco

Repository:Special Collections Research Center at NCSU LibrariesCollection:Biology and environmental engineering (UA023.007.070) held by Special Collections Research Center at NCSU Libraries

One day in the fall each year, Pappaw would get up early and head to the barn to check and see if the tobacco was “in case.”  Being “in case” meant it was damp enough to work, not crumbly, and of course, this only occurred when the leaves had turned their golden brown color. Once it had been declared “in case” the workers were called to the barn where they set up the grading station.  Someone would climb up high in the barn and start pulling down sticks that had been hung on long poles.  The sticks held 8 to 10 stalks of tobacco.  When it was harvested, a sharp tool was placed over the top of the stick and the stalks had been pierced allowing them to slide down the stick.  Several sticks full of stalks would be piled down near the grading station and the leaves were then stripped from the stalks by hand.

A station was usually not a very artfully developed thing, just some boards where leaves could be laid down one on top of the other, with dividers between piles.  Tobacco was prized for its size and color.  Some of the grades were:  Bright Leaf, Big red, and “trash.”  The workers would pile the leaves up, dispose of the stalks in one pile and the sticks in another.  The sticks would be used again for tobacco cutting, and the stalks would be returned to the field as organic matter.  A tobacco basket, which was a large (about 4 foot by 4 foot), shallow one, made of wide slats, would be placed on the ground.  When enough of one kind of tobacco leaf was collected, the worker would create what was called a “hand.”  The hand was several leaves (what you could hold in your hand), bunched together by the stems, wrapped in another leaf to hold the hand together, the end of the wrapping leaf tucked back inside the hand to protect it.  The hand would then be laid in the tobacco basket, stems facing out, allowing the leaves to be protected during transit.  The hands would cover the basket and be stacked up about four feet tall.  When filled, the basket, filled with only one grade, would be loaded on the back of a trailer or truck to make the trip to the warehouse where it would be auctioned off.

It took several times of working with the tobacco in case to get the whole crop graded, tied and loaded.  The trip to the warehouse was always a hopeful trip.  The farmer has no control on how pricing goes.  That is up to the markets, and the tobacco companies controlled that along with the world market and that thing known as “supply and demand.”  The hope was that whatever the price, it would be sufficient to pay the property taxes, and give a little to pay the workers and make Christmas.  In a good year, farm equipment could be upgraded.

Tobacco was usually used as the main ingredient in cigarettes.  I once toured the R J Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem where cigarettes were manufactured until the early 1990s.  The factory was clean and the process was highly automated, but the smell of sweet tobacco permeated the air in the place and sometimes in the neighborhood.  I remember smelling it a lot from the American Tobacco Company in downtown Durham, NC while I was attending seminary at Duke.  The seminary was part of a university that was endowed by a tobacco company-owning family who did much to develop the area.  “Bright Leaf Square” was an upscale mall that filled a former tobacco warehouse in that city.

With time grading was simplified as tobacco companies asked for the tobacco to arrive at the warehouse without being tied.  These latter years the need for help in processing it and getting to market was much less.  Then when tobacco allotments were bought out by the state, it became pretty much a thing of the past altogether.  After several people in the family have suffered from health problems related to tobacco use, it seems appropriate that we don’t raise it anymore.  But it was a way of life.  Once.

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About Brad Scott

An Appalachian CrossFitter who loves Jesus and is happily married to Tammie. I have a son and a fine little grandson. In the peak of middle age, trying to figure out the rest of this journey.
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