On a sweltering, humid August morning, I wat-ched as my wife, Carol, and oldest daughter, Martha Grace, walked down the trail though the woods, past the ancient spring that supplies our water, across the branch, up the hill, past the old tobacco barn and onto the school yard.
It was Martha Grace’s first day of kindergarten. It was also the first day of school for Carol and me as parents. Days like that are filled with emotions and invariably keep your thoughts lingering somewhere between the memories of the past and promises of the future. Martha Grace is the sixth generation of our family to take the same trail through the woods to Sandhills Farm Life School. So, for us, the past is always present as we look to the future.
When Tommy Horton asked me to write an article for the My Turn column, admittedly my first reaction was “Why?” My occupation is now that of an Extension tobacco specialist at North Carolina State University. After working most of my adult life in cotton, I am now working with that glorious golden leaf. Tommy can be persuasive though, so the question turned from “Why?” to “What can I say that is relevant?”
There is little that I can offer of relevance for this year’s cotton crop. So, maybe it’s worth discussing what gives us a connection to the land and the crops that have been so important to the South.
Cotton and tobacco are steeped in tradition. As much or more than any other crops, cotton and tobacco are entwined in the history of the South and our country. From the earliest days, both cotton and tobacco served as not only the cash crop but also the currency itself. An agrarian culture built up around both crops. New technology in the production of cotton and tobacco resulted in migrations that not only shaped the rural areas of the South but the country as a whole.
I consider myself to have been privileged to have worked with both cotton and tobacco for many reasons. For North Carolina, they have historically been the most dependable sources of row crop income. Relative stability in tobacco acres since the buyout of the federal program in 2004 and a recent resurgence in cotton acres and prices have continued this tradition. Both crops are vitally important to the economy of North Carolina and will continue to be.
Over the last couple of years, as our family has moved from Louisiana to North Carolina, and my career has taken me from the cotton world to the tobacco world, I have observed that there is something about the two crops that undoubtedly ties people to the land. Countless times when working with farmers I have heard them describe themselves as “cotton farmers” or “tobacco farmers.” Other crops are always in the mix, but there is something about cotton and tobacco to which we hold fast.
Perhaps it’s the tradition. Maybe it’s the way those two crops have put food on the table for generations. It could be as simple as the beauty of a snow white cotton field or familiar sweet smell of cured golden leaf when it comes out of the curing barn. You never get either one out of your blood.
Whatever the reason, it ties us to the land, gives us a sense of place and binds us together in Southern agriculture. It’s these connections that give our farmers resiliency in the face of adversity and a drive to move the industry forward.
The challenges of cotton and tobacco will never go away. As sure as the domestic textile industry will never fully return, the demonization of tobacco will never go away. But, we get up each morning and meet the challenges because we are tied to the land, the crops, the culture and the way of life. For me, I look forward to being a part of it all, carrying on in the future, with an eye to the past and those who have walked the trail before.
– Sandy Stewart