By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
In Wisconsin, Joann and I have spent many days photographing in tobacco country, but it has always been during the harvest. We have never managed to be in the area during planting time.
In 2010, as I was researching our trip to North Carolina, I stumbled across some photos taken of tobacco planting in the south. The machines were much bigger than the couple we had seen in Wisconsin. I sent a photo to Joann and told her she had to look at it to see if she could see the people sitting behind the flats of tobacco. At first, she couldn’t see them. I told her to look for the legs and feet between the flats of tobacco and then she could finally pick them out.
Since spring seemed to be arriving several weeks early, we added planting tobacco to our wish list of things to capture on our trip. (Do you have a wish list when you travel? You should!) We already had southern tobacco barns on our list since they are so different from the barns we are used to in Wisconsin.
Tobacco has been grown in North Carolina for almost three centuries. In the 1880’s mass production techniques were introduced by Washington Duke, and from then until 2001, tobacco production was the largest source of income for North Carolina.
We knew we would be in tobacco country once we left the mountains, and as we drove a country road one morning, we came across a tractor and tobacco setter sitting in a prepared tobacco field.
The flats of tobacco plants were sitting next to the planter but no one was around. We could study the setter as long as we wanted. Without the tobacco flats loaded, it was easy to see the seats that would soon be occupied by workers to feed the tobacco into the cylinders for planting.
Joann was able to photograph the tobacco setter and the cylinders that would drop the tobacco plants into the ground. We spent quite a bit of time looking at the setter since it was a great opportunity.
Later on the same day, we came across a field being planted with a small two row setter. We watched as they moved across the field and small tobacco plants appeared in the soil behind them.
We considered ourselves blessed and thought that was probably all that we would see. We had wanted to see the planting of tobacco, and we did. As we continued our travels, we found some fields ready for planting, and a couple of fields already planted with new tobacco plants. We also found a lot of picturesque tobacco barns, and stopped to take photos of many of them.
So, imagine our surprise when we came across another farmer planting a large field. His setter was an eight row planter, and we were amazed by the size and how fast they could plant the field. This field was much larger than any we have ever seen in Wisconsin.
We watched as they crossed the field planting eight rows at a time. It seemed that those small plants couldn’t possibly fill the rows in maturity, but having seen the mature tobacco fields in Wisconsin, we knew they would. At the end of the field, the tractor driver would raise the setter along with the workers in their seats to make the turn, and as they approached the next rows to be planted, he would lower the setter again.
We watched them for quite a while, and Joann walked along the road taking pictures as they moved around the field.
This was our last encounter with tobacco planting, but we were happy with all of the opportunities that had presented themselves to us.
We don’t in any way condone the use of tobacco products, but it is a part of our agricultural history and that’s what interests us.
With all of the recent focus on the harmful effects of smoking and tobacco, the southern tobacco barns are fast disappearing. Hopefully some of these will be saved for other purposes or another part of our American history will be lost forever.