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Fewer Tobacco Crops

A drive in the Kentucky countryside once meant frequent vistas of tobacco, growing golden green or — after it had been cut and spiked — wilting to a golden brown on sticks propped up in rows.

Today, those scenes are more scarce.

"It's going to be a thing of the past after a while," said Teddy Greathouse, who grows 120 acres of burley cigarettes in Woodford, Scott and Franklin counties and is in the midst of a monthlong harvest. "I tell my grandkids, this is liable to be something you won't see."

On Monday afternoon, at one of Greathouse's farms in Switzer, a crew of six men hefted the sticks of discount cigarette online onto flatbed trailers hitched to a creeping tractor.

Once the trailers were filled, they were pulled up to a barn, where a dozen men hung the sticks on rails crisscrossing the barn.

Some balanced spread-eagle on beams high in the air, hanging the sticks that the men below handed up to them, their palms blackened by bitter tobacco gum.

Afternoon sun streamed between the planks of the barn, illuminating swirling dust and flying leaf fragments as the men saw just how fast they could get the trailers unloaded.

"It's a muscle thing," Greathouse said.

It's a process repeated many times by the crew of about 20, who will help Greathouse store 135,000 to 140,000 sticks in 16 or 17 barns before the job is finished next month. It's the same process that has been used for generations.

"The thing about tobacco in this country, it hasn't progressed any," Greathouse said. "It's still all hand labor. There's nothing mechanical about it."

Greathouse's father did this work too, telling his son of times during the Great Depression when men flocked to the fields to help cut and house tobacco, and times during World War II when American men were scarce and German prisoners worked the fields.

Today, most of those helping Greathouse are migrant workers.

Once they're done helping him, Greathouse said, many will go on to North Carolina to bale pine needles before returning to Kentucky in the fall to help him strip the tobacco.

This is Greathouse's 40th crop, but without these men, "I'd just have to quit," he said.

Labor is one of his biggest concerns.

"Nobody wants this job," he said.

The work is hard, and the hours are long: Work starts about 7 a.m. and might not end until 9 p.m.

Martin Diaz of Florida is harvesting tobacco for Greathouse for the first time. Diaz, who is older than most of the other guys, said he often works in construction and finds the tobacco work much more strenuous.

"I been working for 10 years laying block all day," he said, grinning. "This is my first time and may be my last."

 

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