The summer of my 16th year, I was between jobs, and my father hooked me up with a man raising tobacco in Greene County, Tennessee. Dad wanted me to go to college, and this was a sure way to encourage that path.
I had never worked in tobacco before, and the experience certainly did help me to decide on a career path that did not involve battling blazing heat and bees.
The man I worked for had leased roughly 4 acres of a large tobacco field. The plants were well underway by the time I started my employment. At $3 per hour, the pay was a considerable increase from the $2.30 minimum wage I had earned during the preceding months bagging groceries.
I cannot speak for the more experienced field hands who taught me how to harvest the burley leaf, but I came away from that summer job thinking that minimum wage was not bad for working in an air-conditioned space with piped-in music.
This was when driving through any portion of the East Tennessee countryside during summer without seeing tobacco fields was still impossible. Tobacco farming might not be as prevalent today but whenever I do spot a crop being harvested, I feel tired and a little sunburned.
The man I worked for was somewhat of a novice farmer himself. He owned a clothing store, and I understood that he had leased the tobacco field to make extra money. He had several experienced tobacco workers and still needed all the help he could get, which is how I fell into the job.
The blooms on tobacco plants are removed to increase the size of the plants’ leaves. For the same reason, that process is often followed by a chemical application to reduce the growth of lateral shoots known as suckers. If a chemical agent is not used, the suckers will need to be removed by hand in a delightful process called suckering.
I was hired when the man realized that his tobacco crop would need to be suckered by hand. Between the yellow jackets, sunburn and nearly dropping from dehydration, my first day in the field got off to a pretty rough start. Not only did I not have the good sense to wear a hat, I did not even bring a jug of water.
When we broke for lunch, the man carried out baloney sandwiches and a cooler of Miller ponies — 6-ounce bottles of beer — on ice. “Boys,” he announced, “there ain’t nothin’ quenches thirst from workin’ in the hot sun like a good ol’ salty beer.”
I was not old enough to have acquired any taste at all for beer, but I was thirsty enough to test the validity of his assertion. The beer would not go down. The ice cubes might have saved my life.
All of that hard work in Greene County tobacco came to mind recently because we have gotten into raising grapes on the family compound. My brother has an established vineyard with Chambourcin and Sangiovese varieties. We’ve added more Sangiovese and some Cabernet Franc vines to the wine-making operation. Leading up to the harvest, there is pruning, tying and spraying to be done. Lots of spraying.
The sun is hot and the yellow jackets do come around, but we never feel like we can’t get through it without a cooler of Miller ponies.