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"Making" Tobacco

( Originally Published 1938 )

The culture of the remarkable plant which sustains one of the greatest industries in the world begins with a seed so tiny that a table-spoonful is enough to plant six and a half acres —an area larger than the average tobacco planter's plot! In the size and shape of the seed can be seen in a glance tobacco's kinship to a number of well-known flowers and vegetables with entirely different properties and uses. The petunia, Irish potato, garden pepper, tomato, and eggplant, all are cousins of this typically American plant.

Let's see how a typical "Old Belt" farmer in Virginia or North Carolina makes his crop. Be-fore the first of April, he is ready to begin the first of a long series of processes which make tobacco such an absorbing problem.

First comes the seed bed. The farmer clears with axe and hoe a space in his second or third growth woodland about as large as the floor of a barn. Here he builds a fire which he spreads carefully over the little area. The burning kills weed seeds and insect eggs and helps fertilize the loamy bed. He rakes and sweeps now until the bed is as smooth as a table.

Thereafter he mixes soil in with his seed so he can scatter them, and carefully sows his little woodland patch. But this is not all. It is too early in the spring for the seedlings to thrive unprotected, so he covers the bed with a great sheet of cheesecloth and pegs it down tightly. Flyers passing over the tobacco country in March and April see thousands of white squares in the woods be-low. Some farmers have several of these beds lest accident or plant pests destroy all their tender stock of tobacco.

Meanwhile, he has prepared and fertilized his land for the reception of the crop. By the time danger of frost is past, most of the plants are several inches high and ready for transplanting. Carefully he removes the seedlings, a basketful at a time, and takes them to the field.

Here, along the widely spaced rows that he has measured, he "sets" his plants. With a sharpened stick, he punches a little hole in the ground just large enough to receive the roots, and with a single rhythmic movement, he seals the earth and steps on to the next position. An ordinary urban gardener marvels at the speed with which he does it, wonders how any of the plants survive such hurried treatment. Rarely, however, are the seedlings wasted. For a few hours, they lie wilted and discouraged, then up come their heads and they begin to grow again.

And how they grow!

By midsummer they are great lush stalks. Cultivated somewhat like corn and cotton, they develop with astonishing rapidity, yielding dividends for every ounce of fertilizer, every hour of care, standing up against the hottest weather. In August, the plants are kept free of grass only by hand-labor with a hoe. There is no room for a mule. There is barely room to walk between the three-foot rows.

At this stage, the tobacco must be "topped" so that each plant will produce leaves of the proper body. This treatment prevents the plants from going to seed—concentrates the energy in the leaves.

Topping must be done with care because to cut a plant too low means tobacco of poor quality. A heavy, fibrous leaf is as bad as a poorly nourished one. In August, the farmers also pull the "suckers"—large sprouts sent out by Mother Nature in an effort to repair the surgery of "topping."

With the stalks waist-high, the most anxious moments of the season are approaching. Fear-fully the farmer watches the summer sky lest a hail storm flatten his crop. He reads his almanac, wondering if by the law of averages he will suffer a wet summer. Long rainy spells in August will harm the quality of his leaf more than a drought. Even light showers sometimes damage the plant. Droplets of water form tiny lenses through which the sun burns spots upon the precious leaves.

Yet as the tobacco begins to ripen, a Virginia field offers a soul-satisfying sight. No other crop seems to draw so much rich, graceful beauty from the soil. Every leaf in the sturdy plants seems like a page from the book of health. Most crops fade somewhat from the sun of late summer, or are cut up by many insects, but tobacco, watched so carefully, tended so constantly, stands almost unscathed, firm and lovely in the heat. Here and there are carefully selected plants which, untopped, are six feet tall and in flower. These are to supply the seed for next year's crop.

Standing in his tobacco field, the farmer is a very happy man, yet his suspense is not over. The all important work of curing the leaf still lies ahead of him.

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