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Colonial tobacco farming

By 1640, London was importing nearly a million and a half pounds of tobacco annually from Virginia. Soon English tobacconists were extolling the virtues of the colony's tobacco with labels bearing such verses as:

Life is a smoke! - If this be true,
Tobacco will thy Life renew;
Then fear not Death, nor killing care
Whilst we have best Virginia here.

Tobacco may have made the smoker carefree, but it certainly was responsible for many a wrinkle on the brow of a planter in Virginia. Tobacco was a finicky crop which required a large work force, an experienced overseer with excellent judgment, a sizable acreage and a certain amount of plain good luck.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, many small farmers successfully raised an acre or two of tobacco every season to sell for goods they could not grow or manufacture themselves. Most of the tobacco sold in England, however, was produced by plantation owners who learned the skill of cropmaster at their fathers' knees. These planters relied on the unskilled labor of indentured servants or slaves for the bulk of cultivation and production tasks.

One third of the year was consumed from the time the tobacco seed was planted until the cured leaves were prized (pressed) into hogshead barrels. However, since tobacco grew best in previously uncultivated soils, land-clearing often took up most of the rest of the year.

The preparation of seedbeds began in January or February; for each acre of tobacco ultimately to be cultivated, 40 square yards of seedbed were required. The sites of seedbeds were chosen, cleared, burned and hoed. The tiny tobacco seeds were sown before the middle of March, often mixed with sand to make distribution more equal. The beds were raked, then covered with pine boughs to protect the emerging plants. After about a month, the fragile seedlings were thinned to about four inches apart.

If the seedlings survived inclement weather and ravages of the tobacco flea beetle, the planter would be ready to transplant his tobacco to prepared fields in May. Knee-high hills were made every three or four feet. This task was considered the most arduous one in the tobacco cultivation process; an experienced adult could prepare no more than five hundred hills a day. After hilling, the planter waited until a rain softened the soil in the fields and seedbeds before transplanting the tobacco plants to their final location. Even with the best of care and weather, not all of the plants would survive; often hills were replanted more than once before a plant took.

Until the plant reached knee-high, weekly cultivation was necessary, to deter both weeds and cutworms. The work was done both with a hoe and by hand, the hills around the tobacco being reformed at the same time.

About two months after the tobacco was transplanted, a series of steps began to ensure large leaves of high quality. First, the two to four leaves growing closest to the ground were removed in a process referred to as "priming." At the same time, the plants were "topped." This step, which involved removing a small bunch of compact leaves which formed at the top of the plant, meant that the tobacco would not waste its energy developing flowers and seeds.

After topping, the plant stood between three and four feet tall. More leaves would be removed, depending on the fertility of the soil, the variety of tobacco and the season when the plants were topped. At first, the settlers concentrated on quantity rather than quality, but experience with the market coupled with regulations eventually dictated that less of a better product was produced.

After a plant was topped, it tended to develop suckers, shoots that emerge where the leaf joins with the stem. These suckers were carefully removed by the plantation work force as well. If this weekly process were not performed, smaller leaves would result.

Throughout its growth, tobacco was subject to the attack of numerous diseases and insects. Of all the pests in the tobacco field, the most feared was the horn worm, the same creature that attacks tomato plants. Usually there were two periods in the summer when the worms, which could grow to the size of a man's finger, were at their worst. A plague of worms could destroy a crop in less than a week; planters learned to inspect each tobacco plant daily. Worms were picked off and crushed underfoot.

The tobacco plants, standing six to nine feet high, were mature and ready to harvest by late August or early September. Even if the planter had good weather and had avoided destruction by pests and diseases, his crop was still in danger. If the plant were harvested before it was fully mature or when its peak season had passed, it would be worth far less. On the other hand, if the tobacco stayed too long in the field, there was the risk of a frost destroying the entire crop. One of the skills of a Virginia cropmaster was the ability to judge just when the tobacco should be harvested. An experienced planter would look at color (a yellowish green), texture (thick, rough and downy) and pliancy (a leaf that broke when it was folded between one's fingers).

Since the plants ripened at different times, there were numerous trips to the field during harvest time. Plants were cut with a sharp knife between the bottom leaves and the ground. If the weather were favorable, the tobacco was left on the ground three or four hours to wilt. This resulted in a heavier, moister leaf which brought a higher price.

In the first few years of tobacco cultivation, the plants were simply covered with hay and left in the field to cure or "sweat." This method was abandoned after 1618, when regulations prohibited the use of potential animal fodder for such purposes. In addition, a better method of curing tobacco had been developed; the wilted leaves were hung on lines or sticks, at first outside on fence rails. Tobacco barns for housing the crop were in use by the 1620's.

During the curing period, which lasted between four and six weeks, the color of the tobacco changed from a greenish yellow to a light tan. Mold was a danger during this time. Once again, a planter relied on his experience to know when the tobacco was ready to removed from the sticks on which it hung, a process known as "striking."

At last, when the tobacco was ready, and during a period of damp weather, workers struck the tobacco and laid the leaves on the floor of the tobacco barn to sweat for a week or two. Logs could be used to press the tobacco and increase its temperature, but the heat might become too intense and mold spoil the crop.

VIDEO REVIEWS
Tobacco Farming in Eastern North Carolina (Documentary)
Tobacco Farming in Eastern North Carolina (Documentary)
History of Tobacco Plantations in Colonial Virginia
History of Tobacco Plantations in Colonial Virginia
Claude Moore Colonial Farm :: McLean, VA
Claude Moore Colonial Farm :: McLean, VA

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