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.