Cutting time: Remembering child labor in the Kentucky tobacco fields

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Greg Meyrovich, a friend of the author’s family, cuts tobacco on a farm in Henry County, Ky. in 1973. (photo by James Baker Hall)

by Jordan Green

And so, once again, our fields are farmed by a racially denominated and subordinated class of menial laborers working without either a proprietary interest in the crop or equity in the land — and this time also without the mutuality of history, language and association that once connected the black and white races. This looks too much like the same mistake we made before. There is something inherently unkind, unstable and dangerous in the willingness of one race or class to depend upon the hard labor of another. The people who work the land should own it.

— Wendell Berry, 2004

I was 16, and my friends, Jesse and Pinky, were 14 when our bus driver, Russell, took us under his wing and taught us how to bring in a tobacco harvest.

It was the fall of 1991, and I had persuaded the girls in my junior English class, with the collusion of our teacher, to shave my head into a Mohawk. Grafting the circumstances of my rural Kentucky surroundings onto my love of the Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks, I smashed up pokeberries and made a natural magenta dye for my hair. Naturally, I called the fashion statement and lifestyle movement “farm punk.”

Several rows of tobacco were already cut and ready to be housed in a nearby barn situated on a gravel lane along Cedar Creek as we assembled for the job on a Saturday morning. 

Russell thought it would make sense for two of us boys to help him house the tobacco. The burley tobacco that has been grown in Kentucky for generations is speared onto wooden sticks in the field before the crew collects it on a wagon pulled by a tractor. Then the wagon is pulled into the barn, and the same crew typically hangs it, stick by stick, in the rails of the barn. An assembly line of sorts of three or more workers, each straddling between two rails, passes each stick of tobacco up into the rafters. The least experienced worker typically works the highest rail because it is the lightest duty. Russell or his son, Todd, as the most experienced and physically developed members of the crew, would feed the sticks up from the wagon.

Russell needed someone to cut tobacco while the other two were housing, and decided I was the most temperamentally suited for the job. Housing is a job that requires close cooperation between workers, while cutting is more of an individual performance. I was happy to receive the special assignment.

Cutting tobacco, like many other functions of the planting, harvest and curing cycle, is almost lyrical in its suite of repetitive movements. The first task is to pick up one of the hard hickory sticks — already laid in place by another manual laborer — and jam it into the ground at a forward-leaning diagonal pitch. Then you place a conical steel spear on top of the stick. Next, you take a light hatchet — or “tomahawk” in Kentucky burley parlance — and cut six plants to spear onto the sticks. Switching between two rows, you cut the first plant near the base in the row to the right and slam it onto the spear point, then turn to the left row for the second plant. The first two plants, splayed in either direction, form a tripod with the stick to keep the bundle standing. Then the last four plants follow in succession: Right, left, right, left.

Todd taught me the job. He told me to go slow, work deliberately and that eventually I would build up confidence to increase my speed. There are obvious hazards. If your aim is off you might put the spear through your hand. If you spear the plant too close to the base, you’re likely to split the stalk, and the task will need to be performed again.

Initially, it didn’t cross my mind to wear gloves, either to protect my hands from the friction of handling the sticks and tomahawk, or from spearing, or from the nicotine that oozes from the sticky plant. I didn’t think to bring a pair, and none were provided.

I got the hang of the job pretty quickly. I enjoyed the sequence of movements, the way my body bent to the cutting and then rose like a piston to spear the plant while working in an arc. I embraced the serenity of being one person set to a task in a field, alone under a blue sky as the sun rose on an August day.

About an hour into the job, Todd came out to see how I was doing. I had no major complaints, but I mentioned to Todd that a blister was developing on my right hand — a result of the repeated friction of handling the stick and tomahawk — and I asked if I should be wearing gloves. Todd said he recommended against gloves because they would be cumbersome and would slow down the work.

He helpfully suggested that I could rub some Vaseline on the blister and cover it with a piece of duct tape. The downside of this treatment is that it would merely preserve the blister until after I finished work for the day and removed the tape. Alternately, I could work through the discomfort, and eventually the blister would callous over. I cheerfully opted for the latter solution, which I viewed as a long-term cure for the ailment as opposed to a salve for an immediate discomfort.

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Wendell Berry teaches his son to cut tobacco. (photo by James Baker Hall)

Child labor in mines and factories was banned in the United States in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, but agricultural work was exempted as a concession to conservative Southern Democrats whose support was needed to enact the New Deal program. Child labor standards allow children to work in the fields as young as 12, with an exemption for farms owned by the parents of the child, in which case they may work at any age. But several countries, including major tobacco-producing countries such as Brazil and India, Human Rights Watch reports, prohibit children under 18 from harvesting tobacco — widely considered hazardous work.

In a report released in May, Human Rights Watch recommended that no child under the age of 18 should be permitted to perform work in which they come into direct contact with tobacco “due to the inherent health risks posed by nicotine and the pesticides applied to the crop.” The recommendation was based on interviews with 141 children ages 7 to 17, almost exclusively Latino, working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia in 2012 and 2013.

Nicotine poses its own hazard, but exposure to pesticides is probably the greater bane.

“While pesticide exposure is harmful for farmworkers of all ages, children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their bodies are still developing and they consume more water and food, and breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults,” the report said. “Tobacco production involves application of a range of chemicals at different stages in the growth process and several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins. According to public-health experts and research, long-term and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems, cancer, neurological deficits and reproductive-health problems.”

The report went on to say that “children typically used gloves, which they or their parents brought, and large black plastic garbage bags, which they brought from home, to wear as protection from wet tobacco leaves and rain.”

I neither boast nor apologize in saying that I don’t ever recall seeing anyone wear gloves or a garbage bag in the fields.

The report says that some of the child laborers said employers did not provide drinking water, and demanded that they work excessive hours. Others chose to work long hours to maximize their earnings.

My experience was different. As a tobacco hand in the early ’90s, I don’t recall any farmer pressuring us to work more than eight hours a day. Sometimes the farmer would poll the crew to see if they wanted to work an extra hour or two, or permit a lone cutter to continue on their own.

It seems to me that culture matters in judging whether it’s good or bad for children to work in the fields. Our parents gave us the option of working in tobacco, and they entrusted us to another adult, the farmer, who was often a mentor. We shared a culture, and the farmer often wanted for us what he wanted for his own children. I suspect that is not the case anymore. I know that farm labor in the South has historically been performed by black workers, but for reasons of which I am ignorant, I don’t ever recall working alongside African Americans in the fields.

Russell was a kind-hearted man and a religious racist who was prone to flashes of temper. Hefty with reddish-blond hair, his anger would manifest with bellowing and a flushing of redness in the face. Russell’s pigmentation and the flushness that accompanied his anger led to speculation among the kids and some parents — likely unfounded — that he was drinking on his bus route.

The bus route ran from the center of the county, where one high school, middle school and elementary school served the entire public school system, about 15 miles to the county line. Those of us on the Route 20 bus who lived beyond the first town — about 10 miles out — were considered a select group. We had to catch the bus earlier in the morning and ride later in the afternoon. “Townies” was what Russell called the kids who lived between the schools and the town. After the townies were dropped off, the route swung down a dead-end, three-mile lane through a Kentucky River bottom and then back to US Highway 127. The population of the town we lived near was about 200 and has since declined to 138, according to the most recent Census.

One morning Russell stopped the bus on the river lane before we came to the town, and made an emotional confession to us, making us understand first that we shared a special bond because we spent the most time together on the route. His voice heavy with pathos, he told us that he had disowned his daughter because she was dating a black man. He added that he had nothing against a black man, and would be the first to help him if he found him stranded on the roadside, but that the Lord didn’t intend for the races to mix.

Jesse and I, alone among the kids on the route, were raised by hippie transplants — more highly educated than our peers’ parents — who instilled in us progressive views on race. We mocked Russell behind his back for his retrograde social views, not to mention his maudlin outburst. But we also knew that his views were well within the norm for our community.

Indicative of the special brand of racism in our predominantly white community, I remember Brian, a large, hyperactive kid crying on the bus because his stepfather was a “nigger.” There are only 91 black people in our county, out of a total population of 10,841, according to the 2010 Census, and those numbers are likely to be roughly similar to the demography of the county in the early 1990s. Brian’s stepfather came to our family’s greenhouse one time to buy tomato plants. I remember him as a hardworking man, built like linebacker, who carried himself with quiet dignity. As a general rule, the white people who lived in our community carried a rich stock of personal foibles and run-ins with the law, but I can’t think of a single strike against Brian’s stepfather. I imagine his mother recognized that she had made a pretty good catch.

Regardless of Russell’s racism and explosive temperament, Jesse, Pinky and I enjoyed working for him. The stress that weighed on him while driving the bus seemed to lift while he was on the farm, and he ran the crew with an upbeat attitude and a generous sense of humor. Although we appreciated that lunch was provided with the job, we gave him a hard time for feeding us Vienna sausages and saltine crackers.

A series of Kentucky farmers, carpenters and tree surgeons took me under their wing and taught me the ways of work and responsibility through my teenage years. I owe them all a debt of gratitude. Among the lessons imparted under their patient tutelage were work ethic, attention to detail, positive attitude and the discipline of physical stamina. Russell specifically taught me to make myself useful instead of standing around while the foreman was preparing to assign duties. You could almost always pick up a broom and sweep a floor or pick up leaves off the ground, for example.

All around the world, children work on family farms. As a matter of cultivating a strong work ethic and gradually assuming a greater share of the burden of the family’s survival, parents assign work to children as appropriate in duration and difficulty. Similar to chores remunerated with allowance, children like me contributed to a family livelihood in producing the cash crop of tobacco.

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The author, at age 8, on the setter with his grandmother, Margaret, and father, Richard.

One of my first experiences working in tobacco was at the age of 8 in the spring of 1983. It would turn out to be a terrible drought year in which our irrigation pumps sucked the creek dry and we observed a large black snake paralyzed from the heat in the middle of the asphalt lane. But in early June, setting time, we surely felt optimistic.

There’s a photograph of me with my father and grandmother, up visiting from Florida. My grandmother and I are sitting on the setter and my dad is instructing us on the job. The photograph suggests that I was expecting to perform one of the two setting jobs. But my job, I clearly remember, was the lowliest — known as “pig-tailing.” I followed behind the setter with a bundle of plants, and when one of the setters missed a plant, they would call out to me, and it was my job to manually replace it. After a time, I fell drastically behind, so that the adults had to stop the setter and help me catch up.

I earned $2 an hour, resulting in a $14 payday.

Even before that, I remember stripping tobacco as the season wound down in November and December, and we prepared to take the crop to auction. A stripping room was a place where a child might entertain himself while parents worked, or handle some of the easier tasks like sweeping or stripping the “trash” leaves after the higher grade leaves had already been culled from the stalk. A couple months before my 6th birthday, I can recall my parents’ discussing the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan in the stripping room and our utter shock when we heard over the radio a month later that John Lennon had been assassinated.

Otherwise, my experience with work was relatively limited until I turned 16, with the exception of mowing the lawn and weeding our strawberry field a couple hours a day during the summer. My introduction to what could be considered adult work came a year or two before I worked for Russell, which would have been the summer of ’89 or ’90. I would have been 14 or 15. From the age of 7 on I had spent idyllic summers swimming and fashioning rafts to ride down the creek around my friend’s farm. His father gave me a job topping, or suckering tobacco, which amounts to snapping off the blooms so that the leaves grow bigger. I remember it being a hot and sticky job, but mostly that my friend’s dad was furious that I had snapped the buds too high, and my four hours of labor had been completely wasted.

I also remember dropping sticks — the most physically demanding of all tobacco jobs — for my friend’s dad. The weight of the bundle of sticks causes the load to cut sharply into your shoulder muscles, and you have to drop sticks end to end as you walk between the rows. It’s also hot and sticky work. I couldn’t hack it, and that’s probably why I ended up with the job of suckering.

While housing tobacco provided a convivial atmosphere of cooperation, the individualized activity of cutting promoted an almost legendary culture of athletic competition and bragging. Jan, a former English professor at the University of Kentucky who left academia to join the eccentric peasantry that formed the hippie cohort in early ’70s rural Kentucky, told me that he and my father once cut 2,000 sticks in a day. As a matter of comparison, although I became pretty good, I topped out on my best day at 1,200 sticks.

The legendary cutters, like my dad, seemed to be shirtless men bronzed by the sun with broad, muscular shoulders whose sinewy arms resembled ropes. Theirs was a friendly rivalry, and mainly they were competing against themselves, trying to improve on their respective records.

If you were motivated, you could earn more cutting than housing. Cutting is piecework, paying about 10 cents a stick in the early ’90s, while housing is hourly wage work. If I recall correctly, housing might have paid anywhere from $5 to $8 an hour.

A hundred dollars a day seemed like good pay at the time. And cutting tobacco provided a nice supplemental income, even if it would be foolish to consider a career as a farm laborer. Farming itself is an economic crapshoot. My father told me that some years the price they obtained for their crop at the auction in December would be less than they borrowed to pay for seed, fertilizer, equipment and labor — making the whole season a loss.

Cutting tobacco was the most physically demanding of all the labor-intensive phases of cropping, including pulling plants, setting, suckering, housing and stripping, and it paid the best. When I started as a cutter, the labor pool was a mix of high-school students, young-adult sons of farmers putting in a couple hours after shifts at the farm-supply store or utility company, and drunks. By the mid-’90s, farmers were almost exclusively hiring migrant workers from Mexico — considered to be a more pliant workforce. Easing the transition for native-born students and young people — almost exclusively white in Kentucky — was opportunity for education and easier, better-paying jobs.

The perverse nature of backbreaking physical labor is that it conditions a person to masochism. Cloaked in false bravado, we became addicted to the work itself. One farmer who employed me in my senior year had a habit of stashing an ice-cold Mountain Dew and Snickers bar halfway down the row as a reward. But caffeine and sugar hardly compares to the high that a tobacco worker gets from absorbing nicotine into their bare hands through hours of contact with the sticky leaves.

They call it “green tobacco sickness,” a form of nicotine poisoning, but at the time I didn’t know there was a name for the condition. It seemed to develop over time, scarcely noticeable in the first couple days in the field, but accumulating as the days piled up on each other and the end of the harvest approached. I remember one particular day after cutting about 500 sticks walking the rutted path to a barn to collect my pay. Every muscle in my body ached, but I felt like I was floating on a cloud of bliss and wellbeing. At 10 p.m. when I tried to go to bed I was so jacked up on nicotine that I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to puke, but my guts wouldn’t give anything up. As I lay in a hallucinatory state between waking and sleeping, my body seemed to levitate and rotate.

I don’t know the long-term effects of nicotine poisoning, and my attempts to research it didn’t turn up any conclusive findings. An investigative report published by the Nation last December includes several harrowing accounts of child tobacco laborers experiencing splitting headaches and waves of dizziness, vomiting in the fields and undergoing hallucinatory dreams.

“Scientists first started to take nicotine poisoning seriously in 1992,” Gabriel Thompson wrote for the Nation.

That was the year after I started cutting.

“During a two-month period, emergency rooms in five counties admitted 47 people who complained of vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness and difficulty breathing,” Thompson wrote. “Twelve required hospitalization, and two were placed in intensive care. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued an advisory, putting the likely number of ER visits statewide at 600.”

The noted Kentucky poet and essayist Wendell Berry, a friend of my parents and a mentor to me, worked beginning in about 1948 and helped with friends’ harvests through the mid-1990s. He has written extensively about tobacco as a staple crop in the economy and culture of small farming in rural Kentucky. He told me that he never had nicotine poisoning or knew anyone who did, while acknowledging the foolhardiness of sweeping claims based on one’s own experience.

I never knew anyone I worked with to become injured in the field through heat exhaustion or accident. But in addition to the aggravation of blistering and the peril of spearing your hand, I discovered you could also impale your eye if you weren’t careful. Following the impact of six plants being slammed over them, the spear can become stuck on the stick. One time I found myself yanking at the spear and it came loose all of a sudden and landed between my eyes. I was rattled enough that I decided to quit for the day. The farmer obliged me, but didn’t seem to understand what the fuss was about considering that I came out unscathed.

My father, however, was once injured while hanging tobacco in our barn, when a rail came loose and his side struck a lower rail before he caught himself. I don’t know if the injury caused lasting damage. I’m sure, however, that it was nothing compared to getting kicked in the ribs by a loose calf, which caused him to be laid up for weeks. He died in a tractor accident the day after my 17th birthday when the wheels skidded in the snow and an unsecured roll bail of hay crushed his lungs against the steering wheel.

Farming is a dangerous business.

As a slender boy with an intensely creative flair and a propensity to use big words that made me a target for bullies, physical work appealed to me. Being able to demonstrate more gumption, drive and endurance than the next kid seemed like a mark of manhood, and a retort to anyone who tried to say I was too intellectual or effete. The brief number of years that my parents raised tobacco had infused the mythology of noble labor in me, and so naturally I was a sucker for the most macho of jobs in the cycle — cutting.

The habits of hard work have for the most part served me well through my adult life. I’m not aware of having acquired any cognitive deficiencies from exposure to nicotine or pesticides, and whatever damage I’ve inflicted on my joints and back seems to be fully repaired as I approach the age of 40.

Work ethic and persistence — these are both prized in any field of endeavor. And yet growing up in a culture of physical labor likely imparts other lessons that are less favorable. The technique of cutting has probably not been improved upon in 50 years, and so the job does not reward innovation or cultivate a mindset of problem-solving. Speed and endurance are the only ways to succeed. No matter how many sticks of tobacco you cut, you would never make enough money to put together anything resembling a decent life. As with most jobs I held before the age of 25, I never had payroll taxes taken out, both by my preference and that of the employer. There were no retirement benefits, no paid vacation, no healthcare. I am unaware of any tobacco farmer who employed me taking out workers compensation insurance in case of an accident.

Hard work for its own sake, in my experience, can lead to a sense of futility, whether as a farmhand or a retail employee. I recognize that as a farmhand performing limited, compartmentalized tasks, I was never invested in health of the crop over the course of a season. Work feels different, and ultimately more satisfying, when you own the land that you cultivate or the business that sustains the enterprise. In any case, the concept of working smarter as opposed to working harder came to me late, and I often still mistakenly conflate long work hours with commitment.

Whether labor in the tobacco fields should be banned for children under the age of 18 is for others to decide. The one thing I know is that the most hazardous work of all is the kind that doesn’t provide a livelihood.

The author wishes to express deep gratitude to Wendell Berry for reading an early draft of this story, and to Mary Ann Taylor-Hall for permission to use photographs.

  • Charity

    This story is wonderful! Every detail and experience told was accurate and truthful. My job was to pull plants. Not the nice floating plants of today’s tobacco but the in the dirt don’t break off the root kind. It was a back breaking job. My largest take of any given day was 33$. I was tired and sunburnt but thrilled for my days wages. The hard work and commeradery with my fellow plant pullers helped me realize I could worfork hard and appreciate the value of money and have a few good laughs at the same time. Scariest thing for me was the spiders and the biggest snake I’ve ever personally seen something I was told called a “cowsucker”. Yikes!! Thank you so much for this story. I really enjoyed it. Thank you Jordan. Charity Kemper Humble.

  • Clay Thompson

    Great one Jordan! I have strong memories of finding arrowheads in a freshly plowed field, sleeping in your hay barn, feeling sick after topping tobacco in a wet field – the leaves brushing my skin as I walked under through the rows.

  • Kitty Cammack

    Beautifully written.

  • Ralph Sawyer

    Jordan, I enjoyed the article very much. From central Illinois, my limited experience helping nearby farmers was helping to bale hay and straw, and walking beans (a job that no longer exists thank to Roundup-ready beans). I can relate though. I think there might be a slight tendency toward masochism, as you say. Is that why I became a landscaper?

  • Nancy Coolidge

    Dear Jordan, “Cutting Time” is very affecting and beautifully crafted. In it you have provided a glimpse of a world that is outside my experience but seems very real and believably nuanced. Thank you. With admiration and affection from across the miles, Rob’s Aunt Nancy in Berkeley

  • Jesse Smoot

    Jordan…….. this story is genious ! For me, it is a like an accurate glimpse into the past; a past that seems a thousand years ago. Way to go, Jordan, on such a incredibly accurate story.

  • Jason Henage

    Jordan,
    This is fantastic writing! It brings back some mostly good and some not so good memories for me. At the time, the work did not seem dangerous, but there is no way I would allow my children to do this work today. Farm work taught me to have a good work ethic, but it also makes me appreciate my career today. I remember that you cut tobacco, but 1200 sticks a day was a talent that I did not realize that you had! I really appreciate that you wrote this.

    Jason

  • Randall Hayes

    Vivid and informative. I had never before heard of anyone absorbing enough nicotine through the skin to get sick. A good idea to repost it on Labor Day.

    I sometimes get frustrated with my son’s attitude about the small things that I ask him to do around the house or the yard, but he doesn’t know. He’s never been hit in the eyes by a urine-soaked cow’s tail, or kicked, or stepped on, or dragged out of bed at three in the morning to birth a calf. He’s never been burned, or blistered, or bloodied in even minor ways by anything I’ve asked him to do. He’s never been knocked down by an electric fence, or spent any time hanging tobacco under a sun-baked metal barn roof. And I’m honestly conflicted about that. I’m a little bit proud of my tiny scars now, but at the time it was often pretty miserable.