Nicotine Risk for Farmers-Personal Story

This story about China and tobacco production popped up in my twitter feed several times on Sunday, September 4, 2011. The initial tweet from @bradplumer said:

Tobacco farmers can absorb the nicotine equivalent of 36 cigarettes per day from handling wet leaves

This story caught my eye because I spent every summer from age 11 until 18 harvesting tobacco in Greene County, N.C. where both of my parents grew up on Tobacco farms (the community of Arba, to be exact). My parents left the farm as quickly as possible, but I lived with my grandparents in the Summers and worked harvesting tobacco on the farm of a cousin (my grandparents still owned a tobacco allotment in the late 1970s-early 1980s but no longer farmed).

I started out cropping tobacco, which means you ride between two rows on a self-propelled harvester and pick or “crop” three-to-four leaves off of each stalk, getting the ripe leaves and leaving the rest to ripen and be picked later. Some people would succumb to “tobacco sickness” which could bring nausea, vomiting and light-headedness; I suppose this was due to nicotine. You eventually got used to it, or found you couldn’t take it at all. Even worse was when the tobacco plant juice would squirt in your eyes early in the mornings when the leaves were wet and juicy; it burned terribly. After a day in the fields your arms would be covered by black tar that was nearly impossible to get off.

As I got older, I graduated to different jobs, and about age 15 I became the “hanger” which meant I took the picked tobacco via tractor and trailer from the field and placed it into the curing barn. You didn’t actually handle the leaves as much with this job, but it required lots of lifting, and pressure–you had to arrive back at the field with a new trailer before the harvester had filled the current one or everyone was waiting for you.

I recall an even stronger effect coming from “taking out” a barn of tobacco, which means removing the “cured” tobacco that had essentially been cooked at very high temperatures to remove the moisture from the leaves to prepare it for storage. Flue cured tobacco is grown in Eastern N.C. and not the Burley tobacco grown in the the writer’s state of Kentucky; however, the picture of Chinese workers in the linked story is flue cured tobacco, I believe. You “took out” tobacco around 6am each morning, and I still remember the head rush you would get when going into the barn and removing the very pungent, dried tobacco. There always seemed to be very little air up in the barn when we did this, and I found that far more unpleasant than the effects of “tobacco sickness” from wet, green tobacco.

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