Citizen Green: A shared culture of tobacco labor

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

The response to my cover piece about working in tobacco has been immensely gratifying. More than anything else I’ve written, the sharing of my story has begotten other people’s stories, accumulating in a collective recovery of shared memory.

My own memories of cutting tobacco and other facets of working the crop prompted a flood of testimonials from friends of my age bracket — now in our thirties and forties — and almost exclusively from Owen County, Ky.

Everyone concedes that the work was difficult, and it bears mentioning that, according to Human Rights Watch, agriculture is the most dangerous work open to young laborers. But judging by the response to my article, those of us who have done this work have retained mostly positive feelings about it, albeit with a sense of wonder, almost like surviving a hazing.

The culture of family farming was an intimate, shared experience in which the reciprocated relationships leavened the difficulty, dirtiness and hazards of the work. What has gradually replaced it in Kentucky — an arrangement in which grower-owners contract with a migrant labor force — is a more mercenary relationship.

“I remember probably the best times with the family best spent,” my friend Robin Renae Gentry of Monterey wrote on a comment thread on my Facebook page. “When I was old enough I pulled plants and followed the setter until I got old enough to be on the setter. Most of the time I was the one bringing them water back and forth and making them come in for lunch that Mom made mostly bologna (the kind you had to cut, not pre-sliced) sandwiches and sweet tea.”

I am incredibly fortunate to have grown up with Wendell Berry, a nationally renowned poet and essayist, as a mentor. Like many others in our community, we called him our “neighbor,” in consideration of both geographic proximity and his kind, open, generous spirit; he lived in the next county over, across the Kentucky River. At the time, I didn’t realize he was so well known; I figured every community had a sage elder with exceptional literary talents. Also fortunate for me and others who experienced tobacco work, Berry is a writer who possesses a particularly keen insight on the subject.

“Mainly, they were friends and neighbors practicing the ancient custom of ‘swapping work,’” he wrote in a 2004 essay about a 1973 tobacco harvest. “They were brought together by necessity and neighborliness, and also by friendship, old association, common history and mutual respect. Fairly typically, I believe, this particular work-swapping did not involve much accounting of time.”

Gentry’s comment reflected this arrangement.

“Seems like we saw more of each other back then,” she wrote. “When they took it away, [we] don’t seem to see the family as much. We lost that tightness with family trying to meet a common goal to help each other and make a living to keep food on the table and roofs over the head. They did all that plus have a day job with the state. My uncle also raised cattle, worked for the print shop in Frankfort during the week, and my mother for [the state Department of] Transportation.”

It came as a revelation to me that many of my friends also worked in tobacco, and experienced the effects of green tobacco sickness.

“Once, Raymond, Garland and I topped [tobacco] after a rainstorm and puked and hallucinated all night from absorbing so much nicotine,” wrote my friend Karl Thompson, a geologist who now lives in Colorado.

I am intrigued by how the experiences of my friends and I might be different from or alike those of young, Latino laborers working the crop today. I was surprised to read in a recent report from Human Rights Watch that most of the children interviewed by the agency attended school full time and worked on farms near their homes.

Yessie Bustos, a former intern with Student Action with Farmworkers who picked cotton and blueberries as a migrant worker from the age of 12, might be the exception.

“I come from a family of migrant farmworkers; we were all expected to work at some point,” she said in an interview published last week by NC Policy Watch. “I am not entirely sure why I started at a much younger age. But growing up I learned that we worked to help pay for bills, school clothes and supplies and also to learn a lesson. Both my parents met in the fields, they both knew how hard the life of a migrant farmworker was and didn’t want for that life to be their children’s. They made us work to show us exactly what was out there without a proper education and to motivate us to stay in school.”

The lesson for all of us seems to be that farm labor is not much of a career, and we did well to put it behind us.