The sight of a tractor making its slow and deliberate way through a freshly plowed field of tobacco here in western Kentucky is somewhat rare nowadays. Our times, they are a’ changin’.
This past fall, I ran across excerpts from a 19th century farmer’s diary that resonated with me as I research my farming heritage in the Black Patch of the Jackson Purchase.
November 28, 1879
Terribly hot again today with no rain in sight.
All hands are well.
August 14, 1887
Reverend Brown died yesterday. His passing is such a blessing as he’s been laid up since summer.
Otherwise, all hands are well.
March 5, 1893
The ground is still wet so I went to town today. Martha is busy planning her garden.
Sun is out and all hands are well.
“All hands are well.” These are familiar words that bring forth warm memories of my childhood.
While tobacco farming may be evolving into hemp farming, many of the old customs remain the same.
Producing a tobacco crop has always been dictated by the seasons.
A typical crop can take more than 300 hours of labor per acre.
That labor includes many steps and a lot of hands to set, hoe, cultivate, cut, house, fire, strip and finally take it to market.
As some of the old folks were known to say, “tobacco is 13-month-a-year job,” because in the past, you would be starting a new crop before you were finished with last year’s crop. Every single aspect of a tobacco crop requires hands-on labor.
While modern techniques have lessened some of the more laborious tasks such as worming and hoeing, tobacco still requires many hands touching each and every plant multiple times.
When I was growing up on our family farm, my jobs included helping to pull plants, riding the setter, and hoeing. Thank goodness, the more physically demanding tasks of spiking, cutting, and housing were generally left to the boys and men, though I did straddle the beams up high in the barn one year, much to the dismay of my mother.
Back then, being “a good hand” was a coveted title.
The term was used for boys and girls, men and women, no matter the age or skin color.
We were taught and encouraged by our parents and elders as we labored alongside them in every aspect of producing a crop.
If there can be a favorite part to growing tobacco, I’d say mine was the stripping.
Now, let me be clear, it’s not the work that was favored, but the fellowship that went along with it. Stripping crews were usually a different crew than the rest of the labor force. In my limited experience, older workers did the stripping and younger people did the splitting, hanging, housing and firing un- der the watchful eye of more practiced hands.
My grandparents were very involved in our family’s farming operation and I remember them being in the stripping barn when I’d get home from school. Typically, they and a few of our elderly neighbors would be lined up on a variety of stools, chairs, buckets, and the like, pulling leaves from each stalk, grading them as they went.
They were rhythmic and sure, tying a single, folded leaf around the stems of a handful of dark leaves to create a “hand of tobacco.”
While this constant motion of stripping and tying ebbed and flowed, the conversation rarely stalled.
They told tall tales, shared recipes, and an occasional joke, intermingled with local news of the day and recollections about our neighbors, friends and family from years gone by.
I was happy to be in their midst, watching, listening, and doing, hoping someday I’d make a good hand.
I’m sure my recollections have clouded over time.
Yet, my memories of the stripping barn are not so much of how difficult and tiring the work was, but more of a warm remembrance of how I learned to work, to enjoy the work no matter how dirty and grueling, and to appreciate the work of others.
The lessons I learn- ed on the farm have stayed with me.
I’m grateful for those elders who took the time to show me what to do, correct me when I fumbled, and encouraged me to keep trying.
All these years later as I endeavor to write about my family’s heritage and the ways of our people, it is with great joy that I’m able to say, all hands are well.
Bobbie Bryant lives in Louisville and serves as a Community Development Advisor for the Kentucky League of Cities. She is passionate about western Kentucky and is a freelance writer with four publications: “Farming in the Black Patch,” “A Beautiful Star: the Life of Lois Etoile Brewer,” “Passions of the Black Patch: Cooking and Quilting in Western Kentucky” and “Forty Acres and a Red Belly Ford: The Smith Family of Calloway County.”
For more information about the author, visit bobbiesmithbryant.com/.