Tobacco: Field, Barn, and Market

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A man and woman in a bottom-land tobacco field. Image from the McClure Photographs collection.

The Importance of Tobacco

During most of the twentieth century, tobacco was one of the major drivers of North Carolina's economy. The mountain counties in the western part of the state were no exception. Most farmers raised at least some tobacco. The tobacco barns that still stand throughout the region testify to the former importance and popularity of the crop.  

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In the Field: Tobacco Cultivation and Harvest

Raising and harvesting tobacco was labor intensive. Farmers raised seedlings in tobacco beds before transplanting the seedlings to fields that had been plowed and harrowed. Throughout the growing season, the farmers and their families cultivated the fields to eliminate weeds; this work was sometimes done by hand with hoes. Similarly, farmers worked to control insects and to remove blooms so that the plant would grow more leaves. At season's end, the plants would be cut and hauled to barns for curing.

In the Barn: Curing

G.F. Brown Flue-Cured Tobacco Barn

Long after burley tobacco had supplanted bright leaf, the barns used for flue-curing remained standing. Farmers Federation News from December 1945.

Two varieties of tobacco dominated distinct eras. Bright leaf tobacco was common between 1870 and 1920. Farmers dried bright leaf tobacco in barns that were sealed and heated. This flue-curing was not necessary for the variety of tobacco that farmers began adopting in the twenties.

Farmers could cure burley tobacco in unsealed barns. In some cases farmers adapted existing barns for this purpose. For example, removing the clay chinking that sealed up a log barn used for flue-curing would make it possible to cure burley in the renovated structure. Farmers might also adapt a livestock or dairy barn by adding latticing along the tops of the walls and a "Kentucky vent" along the bottom of the walls. Whether built along this design or adapted to it, this kind of burley barn functioned like a very large dehydrator: hot air escaping out of the latticing along the tops of the walls would pull air in through the vents along the bottom of the wall. Over time, this circulation of air would dry the burley tobacco and make it ready for transport to the market.  

For more information about tobacco barns, as well as an amazing database of barn photographs, navigate to the Appalachian Barn Alliance's Database.

To the Market: Sorting and Selling

"Burley Profits Depend on Sorting"

Farmers Federation News from December 1939

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Cured tobacco leaves being stripped from the stalk and sorted. Image from the McClure Photographs collection.

The Farmers Federation stressed the importance of carefully sorting tobacco into particular categories or "grades." 

The News also advertised and promoted the tobacco warehouses in the region, especially the Asheville Tobacco market. Farmers would haul their tobacco to these warehouses and sell their crop, often for cash.

"Asheville Burley Market Setting All-Time Record"

Farmers cash their tobacco checks at a Farmers Federation warehouse. Farmers Federation News from January 1943.

The issues of the Farmers Federation News that focused on the tobacco market also included advertisements for how farmers might spend their profits, as well as reports tracking how the year's harvest compared to earlier years. As the items in the gallery below make clear, harvest records were repeatedly broken during the late thiries and early forties. 

The tobacco trade undermines the myth of Appalachia's "isolation." At lease in western North Carolina, residents were not cut off from the rest of the world: tobacco connected rural North Carolinians to urban places and to a global trade system.

The Decline of Tobacco

In 2004 the Federal Goverment ended the Tobacco Price Support Program. This Program had established a price floor for tobacco. If the market price for tobacco fell below the cost of production, the government would "support" farmers with a subsidy that ensured they did not take a loss on their tobacco crop.

Without such protection from market fluctuations, fewer and fewer farmers raised tobacco. According to Max Hunt, "in Madison County, for example, the total acreage devoted to tobacco cultivation dropped from 1,400 in 2004 to roughly 100 [in 2016]. And during the same period, the number of tobacco farmers in neighboring Buncombe plummeted from about 800 in 2004 to just 20" in 2016.*

*See "Smoke and Mirrors: The Death of Tobacco in WNC" (https://mountainx.com/news/smoke-and-mirrors-the-death-of-tobacco-in-wnc/).

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Tobacco fields like this are now an uncommon site in Western North Carolina. Image from the McClure Photographs collection.

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Tobacco: Field, Barn, and Market