Tobacco, sodas and nabs

July 31, 2013

Horry County, South Carolina

By Randall Hill

It’s not long after a visitor arrives at Shelley Farms in the Pleasant View community of Horry County, South Carolina that they are offered a cold soda and a pack of peanut butter crackers commonly referred to as “nabs”. In good old Southern fashion, several bulk packs of the treat are placed on the edge of a John Deere tractor seat and offered to any visitor or farm hand that cares for a snack. Along with the nabs the Shelley’s will offer a choice of a can soda from a large cooler kept cold despite the stagnant summer heat in South Carolina.

Johnny Shelley has farmed his entire life. He took some time away from the farm to attend college in North Carolina and then taught school for a while, but the land eventually brought him back to farming. He and his son Cam operate the farm and maintain 1200 acres of farmland including 300 acres of tobacco just a stones throw from nearby Mullins, South Carolina. This area is referred to as the “border belt” of tobacco with North Carolina and Virginia serving as the biggest producers of the historical crop.

The months of July and August are harvest and curing time for the tobacco farmers along the border belt. The Shelley’s and most farmers in South Carolina grow a variety of tobacco referred to as flue-clued. The name comes from the process of drying out the crop after it is harvested with heat and air. The tobacco is first pulled from the stalks with a large machine called a harvester. The operator on this farm is a long time employee of the Shelley’s named Lester “Buddy” Stroud.

Stroud has a thick white beard and wavy white hair tucked under a camouflage baseball cap and hung low to keep the light of the mid-day sun under control. He sits low in the front of the harvester’s only seat. The operator’s compartment is designed to be well in front of the crop to give the driver a good view of the tobacco to be harvested. Stroud and his brother Jim operate the two harvesters on duty this day and work to remove the plants’ bottom leaves that contain the lowest quality of tobacco the farm produces.

Several times the brothers have to stop their machines in the middle of a row to unjam the cutters and transports that take the crop to a storage bin at the top of the machine. “This is what we call the sorry part of the tobacco plant”, says Buddy as he removes his hat to wipe off his brow of sweat. “The good stuff is in the middle and the top. That’s where the higher grades of tobacco come from.” As the brothers pull the tobacco from the fields, the crop is transported to vehicles re-purposed from old school buses to transport the crop back to the farm.

At the farm headquarters, Johnny and Cam supervise the operation of loading the dryer barns with harvested tobacco and unloading the cured tobacco to bundle in bails to take to the warehouse in Mullins. Here the workers are a diverse group of young high school summer workers, Mexican and El Salvador immigrants and long-time farm hands. The crews work together like a clock even with the language and cultural diversity. They pull the harvested tobacco from the transport vehicles to waiting tobacco boxes sized to hold more than a ton of the crop and fit like compartments in the waiting bulk barns.

The heat index of the South Carolina summer is heightened when you walk past the rows of bulk barns in the process of drying the crop for market. The green tobacco is loaded in the barns and kept for a week in constant heat and airflow. The process changes the crop from a green odorless crop to a milky brown colored leaf. The sweet smell of the cured leaf dangles around at the top of your nose and almost makes you forget that cigarettes, the crops end product, can be dangerous to your health. After the tobacco is cured, it is covered and taken to the nearby market center for sale and grading.

The Shelley’s are co-owners of the Big L Warehouse in Mullins and they lease the space during harvest time to the U.S. Tobacco Cooperative of Raleigh, North Carolina. U.S. Tobacco is a farm co-op designed to pool farmer’s resources and to open up markets for the sale of their crop to more domestic and foreign markets. The cooperative also sets the price and quality standard of the crop the farmer bring in to market.

In the middle of the warehouse, U.S. Tobacco graders Scott Harrington of Hohenwald, Tennessee and Jimmy Allen of nearby Aynor, South Carolina, watch as the bailed tobacco travels down a system of conveyors and through a moisture analyzer. After the moisture content is determined, the two take small samples of the crop for hand inspection. After determining the grade, the inspectors hand a card to a worker stationed by a computer. The labels with the grade are printed and fixed to the 700 lb. bale and stacked in certain areas of the warehouse depending on the quality. A series of forklifts operated by warehouse workers dance back and forth between each end of the conveyor loading and unloading the tobacco as it is graded.

The controversy surrounding the health concerns of cigarettes will continue as the crop is sold in U.S. and foreign markets. There has been plenty written about the dangers of cigarettes and it has affected they way the farmers produce and sell the crop. What can’t be denied is the history and influence the crop has had on the culture in the Southern United States. The rich connection to the earth and farming continues to this day despite the dangers of the crop.

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