Women in Ag: Tobacco Season in Pictures

  • We have three greenhouses where we raise plants that will be transplanted to the field on our North Carolina flue-cured tobacco farm. We lay plastic across the dirt floor because tobacco plants are grown in trays floating in water.

  • Here's the greenhouse after it was filled. Sometimes we leave the hose running all night to get the beds full.

  • Once the greenhouses are ready, it's time to seed the trays. We raise our transplants in styrofoam trays, which are reused for several years. They are run under the green bin and filled with a potting soil mix used specifically for tobacco.

  • After the trays are filled with soil, they run under this piece that puts dents in the soil. We constantly brush this piece with a dry paintbrush to keep soil from building up it.

  • As you can see, the seeds are very tiny, but the seeder is able to drop only one seed in each compartment.

  • After the trays are seeded they are floated in the greenhouse. It can be kind of tricky to keep the trays where you want them, so PVC pipe comes in handy!

  • The seedlings grow in the greenhouse for two months. Our goal is to grow enough tobacco plants in our greenhouses so we don't have to buy any plants from other farmers.

  • The greenhouses must be checked every day to make sure heaters are working. Once it warms up, we lower the curtains on the sides of the greenhouses every evening and raise them every evening to keep the temperature just right.

  • Our goal is to have plants all the same height. Those closest to the curtains grow slower because some cold air sneaks in. We mow three times per week to ensure uniform height, which lets more light get to the stem, allowing it to grow thicker.

  • The mower is basically a lawn mower attached to a clipping rail that rolls on a track along both sides of the greenhouse. You start at one end of the greenhouse, crank the mower, roll the mower to the other end, cut it off, dump the bucket full of clippings, and start again on the next row. This is easier said than done!

  • In April and May, the trays of plants are moved from floating in the greenhouses onto trailers, and hauled to the field.

  • Tobacco doesn't grow well in wet soils, so we use a bedder to make rows of raised beds in the field. We bed the field a few weeks before planting, and again the day before or day of planting. The second time, a board is added to the back of the bedder, which flattens the top of the beds a bit.

  • We pull a setter behind a tractor to transplant tobacco. There are seats for 8 workers, and we set 4 rows at a time. Workers put a plant in the clip, which circles around, sets the plant in the soil, and comes back for refills.

  • The tractor moves at about 1.3 miles per hour, so it's a slow process. When I was sitting in one of those seats, it felt like the machine was going 55 mph.

  • Sometimes a plant doesn't get set correctly or the worker misses a clip. Workers walk behind with a handful of plants, using a peg (rounded stick) to plant any holes the setter missed.

  • By late June, this is what the tobacco crop looks like.

  • The tobacco harvest starts in July. Tobacco is grown for its leaves. The plant matures from the bottom up so we harvest the bottom leaves, or lugs, first. The plants on the left have been cropped, while those on the right haven't.

  • Later, moving up the stalk, we harvest cutters, leaves and finally tips. What this really means is that we crop tobacco four times. Our harvester crops two rows at a time.

  • Tobacco can be harvested by hand or using a mechanical harvester. Either way, the goal is to remove mature leaves from the plant.

  • We use mechanical harvesters as a rule, but we sometimes have to hand pull if it's too wet to put the machines in the field.

  • When the box is full, the tobacco is unloaded into a trailer, covered, and pulled to the shop yard. We use a green leaf handling system, which uses belts to move leaves from the truck into vented metal boxes. The loading system improves efficiency and allows us to load each box with the same amount of leaf, typically 1,800 to 2,400 pounds.

  • A forklift carries the full boxes to the barn, and they are pushed inside. Our barns hold 8 boxes each. Once a barn is full, the doors are closed and the 8-day curing process begins. As the moisture is removed from the leaf, it changes from green to yellow.

  • During curing, of temperature is increased while humidity is decreased. The schedule may vary because of ripeness, maturity, the weather when cropped and other factors. Each barn is visited several times a day to monitor conditions and make adjustments.

  • Once the tobacco is cured, it is removed from the barn and baled.

  • Baling makes transportation and storage easier. Each bale weighs no more than 850 pounds. Farmers have a contract with a company for how many pounds of tobacco they will sell there.

  • We take the bales to the receiving station where each bale is weighed and graded. The grade is an indicator of quality and can be influenced by stalk position, color, texture and leaf size. We are paid per pound based on the bale's grade.

  • Read more

    Read more about tobacco and life in North Carolina in the Women in Ag Blog Heather Lifsey Barnes writes for Agriculture.com.

Tobacco season in North Carolina runs from February through October.

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