Labouring on the Farm

On Saturday we paid a visit to a farm where 35 years ago, my husband spent the summer picking and processing tobacco plants. It’s something he and my Mom have in common, although she worked for many long, hot summers on tobacco farms.   

It’s still darn hot but it’s not as hard as it used to be and workers get an awful lot more done with modern machinery.  There certainly isn’t as much call for tobacco these days. Scientists are working on medicinal purposes for the plant but smokers are still the main end-users. There used to be about 4,000 tobacco farms in Ontario and now there are about 400. The plants are rather pretty, really. Now, at harvest time, they’re about thigh-high with huge leaves in a lovely green. They don’t look like the cancer sticks they’ll eventually become.

Instead of painstakingly cutting leaves off plants by hand the way it used to be done, a worker now drives a special combine down the rows.  It slices leaves off the plants and they’re rolled onto a conveyor belt that pulls them up to a massive basket in the back of the machine. The basket’s name is a little misleading. It’s really about the size of a pick-up bed, but taller, and a man stands inside it with a pitchfork, pushing the leaves down around himself.  The three of us, Derek, friend Barry and I, rode on the bridge of the combine as they went up and down a row. It was a kick to watch the process from on high and see the lad in the back forking the leaves as fast as they arrived. When we returned, the driver said, “Now you don’t have to go to Canada’s Wonderland!”

close-up of a red combine making a turn to go down the field again

The basket is on wheels so when it’s full, it’s detached from the combine, a pickup pulls up, hitches it on and takes it to the kilns which aren’t at all like the big red buildings of old.  Back then, workers had to tie bunches of leaves to sticks to prepare them for drying.  Now, the baskets packed with leaves are pushed into the kilns and long, steel pins are pushed through the bars to keep the leaves from mushing together as they dry and shrink. This eliminates moisture. The smell is incredible! It’s the same wonderful smell of my Dad’s corn-in-the-husk cooking on the barbecue. When it’s dried, it’s baled and 52 bales at a time are taken to the tobacco plant. I joked that we aren’t helping the industry because we’ve all quit smoking! But most of the tobacco now is apparently shipped to China where they’re puffing like mad. I guess it’s our payback for all of the plastic crap they send to us.

a roomful of huge bales of dry tobacco

Back when the lads were part of the summer work crew, they stayed in a bunk house that still stands on the property, complete with their names carved in the walls.

a crudely scratched DEREK in a wall

The bunkhouse is used for storage now but the bones of it are still there. Although it’s small and narrow, the guys would come back from the fields so tired, they didn’t really care what it looked like as long as they could shower and sleep. They were teen boys, making real money for a summer’s honest work. It’s still a very time consuming and physical way to make a living, as it is for any farmer of any crop.  How fitting that we visited on the Labour Day weekend.

three men standing in front of the door of a small white tin building