• 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.

    • Here is a comment on a recent news story that the Labor Department was considering new regulations for teenage farm labor.


      Exactly who is opposed to such regulation? and why?

      • @David R
        In the past small farmers were opposed b/c otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to exist. I suspect that has changed now due to migrant labor. By the time I was 12 or 13, I would take a tractor with an attached bush hog (souped up law mower) and drive it down the road to tobacco fields and bush hog the truck rows, plowed soybeans with a rolling cultivator, and I used to spray tobacco routinely with chemicals (notably MH 30 which stunts its growth after you top and sucker it). I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and my grandfather had taught me to use these implements. This would seem unimaginable to me now (my sons are 14 and 11; my daughter who is 16 would laugh hysterically if I suggested she go to a farm, much less work on one). I suspect opposition for child labor extensions is not wide today, because very few farmers now use teens, at least in eastern NC (almost all done by migrant farm workers, which was unheard of in early 1980s). Basically a 23 year old can out work a 13 year old. Grain elevators are dangerous as hell, because they commonly get pockets in them such that the auger cannot get the grain out; people can be trapped if these pockets collapse. I will say that every time I ever went into a grain elevator (not common, but not unheard of) there was a rope tied around my waist with people at the other end. I don’t mean to romanticize this….just the story of my growing up.

    • Don

      Thanks for the interesting reply. You didn’t romaticize your experiences, you did scare us though. Just thinking about doing those things today is somewhat unreal.

      My understanding is that early teenage labor is still used extensively in the midwest, witness the tragedy of electrocution of some teenagers cutting corn tassels earlier this summer.

      My point, and the point of the referenced post is that regulations in this area are entirely appropriate, and I for one do not understand why there would be any opposition to them.

      David R.

      • @David R
        The opposition comes from the costs (real and perceived) of such regulations. If you run the cost:benefit of such regulations, I suspect the sensitivity (shift point) comes from how/what value you assign to avoiding morbidity and mortality. There is also a big difference in how one views such systems (the child/adolescent labor of farming) from within v. outside of such systems. One thing I would point out is that there are intangible benefits I derived from farmwork. Knowing my grandfather and grandmother in a deep way, it was really part of my motivation for working hard in college to not do that work forever, and growing up in the rural south, farm work and playing football were two very practical ways that I interacted with/respected/was joined with African Americans whom I would have otherwise never really known at all given the social structures. Just a few thoughts….

    • I just remember how good those tobacco barns used to smell! But then, I never had that experience tainted by actually having to work the fields, only playing hide-and-seek among the rows of tobacco plants and the dark corners of tha barns.