Curing tobacco: one man’s accidental innovation becomes another’s livelihood

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Just a few decades ago, tobacco provided a secure income for Southern farmers. But when the tobacco buyout came, many Black farmers were cut out of the deal. Some have turned to farming different crops, like soybeans and cotton, but have bittersweet memories of their experience as multi-generation farmers watching their communities crumble around them as a result of the exclusion from tobacco.

These are among the stories spotlighted by author Natalie Baszile in her historic book, “We Are Each Other's Harvest,” celebrating African American farmers’ land and legacy. Baszile joins Good Food’s Evan Kleiman to discuss tobacco’s legacy and impact on Black farming families. We also hear from O'Neal Bluefort, a third generation farmer featured in Baszile’s book, about his family’s story.

KCRW: How did tobacco help black farmers achieve success? And who was Stephen Slade?

Natalie Baszile: “Really, there are three crops that built this country: tobacco, sugar, and cotton. And most of the time, when we think about the history of Black people, we typically think about cotton. More recently, certainly since [my novel] ‘Queen Sugar’ came out, we now think about sugarcane and sugar harvesting as part of the legacy of Black people on this land. But we don't necessarily always think about tobacco and Black people. 

The truth is that Black farmers, especially in North Carolina, were growing tobacco, and this was a source of their livelihoods. Stephen Slade was an enslaved man in the 1700s who invented this method of curing tobacco. And that became the method that allowed states like North Carolina to really put themselves on the map agriculturally. His legacy is what a lot of the Black farmers, until the ‘80s, were following. They were growing tobacco in their communities, they were selling this tobacco to the three big tobacco companies. And this was the way Black farmers in that region were able to get ahead. 

But because of the tobacco buyout and a lot of issues having to do with regulations, and the reasons why tobacco was not something that the government wanted to support anymore, it actually wiped out a lot of the Black farmers, because they were left out of the quota system that a lot of the white farmers were able to engage in, and that allowed them to continue to be able to grow that as a crop.”

What is the story of Happy Land Farms and the Wright family, who took the tobacco buyout?

Baszile: “The Wrights are a second or third, maybe even fourth, generation Black farming family in Bladenboro, North Carolina. They had really risen into the middle class as a result of being Black tobacco farmers. But when the tobacco buyout happened, and a lot of the Black farmers in their community were not able to participate in the quota system that the government was using to allow a lot of the white farmers to sell tobacco, it really decimated their community. 

I talked to a lot of farmers who had grown tobacco as kids, who told stories of people actually coming from other areas of the country in the summer times to harvest tobacco. And this is the way people put shoes on their kids’ feet and clothes on their backs and sent kids to college. The Wrights tell the story about what happened in their family and how they're still there at Happy Land Farms. The grandson, Austin, is now a farmer. They're farming different crops. Now they're farming soybeans and cotton. But they have this memory that is bittersweet of their experience as farmers watching their community really kind of disintegrate around them as a result of what happened with tobacco.”

O’Neal Blueford is a third generation farmer in South Carolina who witnessed the transition from tobacco to other crops. He tells us about his family's story, the challenges they face, and the joys of connection to the land. 

A grandfather’s legacy

O’Neal Blueford: “My farm is in eastern South Carolina. It’s Williamsburg County. And I'm a third generation farmer. My granddad originally bought the land. It started out as small as 50 acres, and it started growing. He kept purchasing, and in maybe eight years, his tract doubled in size. Once he passed on at an early age of 65, he left my father to take it on. It kind of put a lot of pressure on him, being the only son. And after that, all of his sons had to step up, which is me and my brothers. We had to step up at an early age to keep this thing going. 

Some of my jobs starting off early on were picking up leaves behind the tobacco cropper all day long at the age of seven, until I got tall enough to drive the tractors, which was seven. And then from there on, pretty much up until the last 10 years, we went up to about 91 acres of tobacco. It left me to ... really pick up the pace, so far as not being a kid [but] being a man and help out my father, because it was just me and him coming along, up until my younger siblings got to the age where they could come in work. 

“Whatever you do, you carry this farm” 

When I was younger and working the farm with my dad, I really didn't like it. I didn't think it would be the thing that I would do. The thing that really kind of got me into it was the fact [that] my grandfather was struggling to make this thing happen as a farm …. And when he found out that he had cancer,  he said he wanted me to farm. I remember those words. 

This was in ‘89. He was diagnosed, and they gave him a date. And I was just old enough to remember him saying, ‘Whatever you do, you carry this farm. One day you need to carry. You need to be able to operate it for your family to survive. And that's my wish.’ 

He even left me a final gift that I had to grow up with, without him, and it meant a lot because that gift was a cab tractor. In ‘89, not many farmers had a cab tractor. And he gave it to me. And I thought that was the world, for somebody to give me something that was much bigger than me. Definitely, I felt like it was worth more than I had put in for the years of work versus my dad, and he wanted his grandson to continue to farm. It lights a fire in me every time I get tired, and I keep going. 

But the hardest working person in the family and who had the strongest will was my grandmother. And when I say hardest working, I'm talking about manual labor working. That's who taught me the manual side of stuff. My dad and granddad taught me the operation of the equipment. She was one of those grandmothers that never, ever spanked me, but if she looked at me, it would hurt me to know that she was mad. And I don't know how she did it, to this day, as a father [myself].

Challenges and changes

Growing up here in South Carolina as a Black farmer has been very difficult, because at any given moment, there are only three Black-owned family farms in this area. The biggest farm family we have in this area is probably us, the Bluefords, because my dad had three sons. I can think of other farmers who don't have any sons. And they're barely holding on. It's very tough, because the information gap was so stretched out with a few Blacks that we really missed out on a whole lot of opportunities that were there, because of just lack of knowledge or not being counted in as a farmer. 

The stable crop back then, in the ‘80s, was tobacco. It was the biggest thing going here, up until about 2010. Tobacco went right out with drastic changes in health awareness. And we got away from it and picked up cotton. 

No perfect crops, no bad days 

One of the things that I really enjoy is getting the soil prepped just right, waiting on the right moment of the weather. It’s something that a farmer has to know. And it's not written in any book. You have to know when the season is there for planting that certain seed. And when the ground temps get right, and you get that soil all prepped up, and you plant a seed in it, from that day, to watch that thing grow every day, it keeps you going trying to wait ‘till harvest season to see if you've done everything right. And that's when you know if you got everything right. If you didn't, then you start evaluating what happened, whether it was a drought, flood, or just too hot, humid air. 

Waiting on everything to pollinate is just beautiful, as I ride by the road and look through my truck window and see the clean fields. You can see just who’s doing everything to the best of their abilities. As a farmer, the only thing we can’t control is the weather. Some of us think that if we could, we would make a perfect crop. But there's no such thing as a perfect crop. It's just doing the best you can. There's no bad day. It’s just what you make of it. And I think that if you have bad days, or you think they’re bad days, somebody has a worse one. That's my thing. Every day, somebody always has it worse than me. So I don't have time to complain. 

Working with family, towards the future

Working with my two brothers and my dad is kind of a team effort. We all depend on each other. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, but nobody complains about it, because it has to be done. I don't think that we could do any of it without either of us not being there. After working together so long, everybody knows exactly what they have to do and who has to do it. 

I have two sons, the oldest being 21, and the youngest being eight. I look at my sons, and they grow up with all this technology and these games and everything, and they don't want to go outside ... The last thing they’re gonna look at is what they have that comes from earth when they get older. But I think it's what we teach them. My son is eight, and I let him plant, for him to see this thing grow. And I make him nurture it. Not to say ‘make him,’ he enjoys it. He’s got to understand where it comes from, and one day he'll be able to feed his family, if need be. Because at the rate the world is changing, nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. But I feel like the last thing will be most important. And we’ll go back to the ground. We'll go back to the soil. It’s one of the most important things, right next to the sun.”