Special Collections Research Center Teacher Resources: Lesson Guides: Tobacco Harvesting

Mechanizing Tobacco Harvesting in North Carolina between 1945 and 1970

This lesson plan focuses on the changes in tobacco farming between 1940 and 1970 on North Carolina farms. It asks students to use primary source photographs, documents and a video from farm operations during these time periods to examine how farming techniques changed due to mechanization. To view primary source materials beyond those provided here on this topic, please visit NCSU Libraries' Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials.

The Common Core standard this lesson guide works with are 8.H.3.2 from the North Carolina 8th Grade Social Studies Standards.

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Background

Tobacco has been a big industry for North Carolina since after the Civil War, but the way that tobacco was grown and harvested on the farm changed little from 1865 until 1945, despite many advances in technology for cigarettes and cigars.

Following World War Two, there were fewer people interested in farms and they were leaving rural areas to live in urban areas with more industrial jobs. Those farmers that were left faced severe labor shortages and there was demand for changes to how tobacco was grown and harvested.

In the 1950s and 1960s, professors and researchers at North Carolina State University developed several machines and methods that would allow tobacco farms to produce more tobacco with fewer hands.

How Tobacco was Harvested Through the 1950s

In the late 1940s, it was estimated that it took 450 hours of human labor to grow, harvest, and process tobacco for market. The majority of the work at the time was done by hand, with very little reliance on machinery or even animal labor. The typical tobacco farmer in North Carolina at this time would count on his family, some hired help, neighbors, and for farmers with larger tracts of land, tenant farmers and their families to share in the work of growing and harvesting a tobacco crop.

Before the farmer planted anything in the ground, he first would grow tobacco seedlings in seed beds in the late winter, early spring of the year. These seedlings, 90 days after the seed was first planted, would then be transplanted into a field that was prepared by the farmer, which was usually created from newly cleared land to be sure to have the best soil for the crop. A field was prepared typically by a farmer using a mule or horse to pull a plow to break and harrow the soil. Transplanting was very slow work. Each seedling had to be taken from the seed bed to the prepared field and planted individually into the ground. It was estimated that it took 30 man hours per acre to transplant all the tobacco seedlings.

Throughout the late spring and early summer, the farmer and his labor crew would work to keep the tobacco fields free of weeds. This typically took the form of hoeing the rows to keep the soil turned and pulling out the weeds. This was done across the entire field at least four times after planting and before the harvest.

As the tobacco plants got close to harvest time, they would begin to produce a bud near the top that would need to be removed to ensure that the leaves grew to their full potential. The removing of the bud was called “topping” and was done entirely by hand, where laborers walked up and down the rows breaking off the bud. While the topping crew moved through the field, they also were on the lookout for tobacco hornworms, a pest which ate the leaves. Removing the hornworms, which were also called suckers, was called “suckering” and required the workers to pull them off by hand and kill them.

Starting in late July or early August, depending on how the weather was that year, the tobacco harvest begins. The harvesting process was the most physically demanding part of tobacco farming, and the fact it happened during the hottest part of the year in North Carolina, it was also the most miserable part. Laborers would walk down each row of tobacco and harvest leaves starting on the bottom of the plant, each week working their way up the plant. This meant for the first few weeks of the harvest, the men working in the field were basically stooped down the entire day to pick off the bottom leaves. The harvester would put the picked off leaves under his arm until he had a good load and then would walk to a sled that was pulled by a mule and put the leaves in the sled. He would then return to the field and continue picking. The harvest typically lasted 5 to 7 weeks.

Once a sled was full of tobacco leaves, it went to the curing barn, where more people were waiting to string the leaves onto sticks that were loaded into the barn for curing. The leaves were tied on to long sticks by hand with cotton twine, with 90 to 100 leaves typically fitting onto a stick. Once the stick was complete, it was hung in the tobacco barn. A standard barn would hold 400 to 600 sticks. Once a barn was loaded with the sticks, it was ready for the curing process to begin. The tobacco was cured over 5 to 7 days, with the temperature alternating between low and high to achieve the ideal cure on the tobacco. The heat was fueled by wood, oil, or coal and had to be constantly monitored to ensure the tobacco was not ruined. Once the cure was finished, the tobacco was taken out of the barn and prepped for the market.

Moving to a Mechanized Process 1950-1979

In the early 1950s, there were increasing calls in the agriculture community for methods of farming that could achieve higher yields with less labor. North Carolina State University, being the agriculture and technology school in the largest tobacco producing state in the country, took the lead in mechanizing the entire tobacco farming process.

Almost every step in the tobacco farming process was replaced by a new technological development to make it easier on the labor crew to grow, harvest, and cure the tobacco crop. Transplanting tobacco, which was formerly done painstakingly by hand, could now be done by a machine that covered four rows at a time. Tractors became much more advanced and alleviated the need to hoe each individual row of tobacco by hand. Chemical weed and sucker control was developed so that tobacco hornworms no longer had to be pulled off by hand.

The two biggest time savers were the mechanical tobacco harvester that was developed throughout the 1950s and the bulk curing barn, invented during the same time, both by staff of the Department of Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University. No longer did laborers have to walk through the field picking leaves off the tobacco plants one by one. And instead of tying every leaf to a stick for curing, the leaves could now be packed into special bin and put in a barn that had mechanized temperature control to be cured.

The results of the work of faculty and students, along with their partners in the agricultural machinery and chemicals business, between the 1950s and 1970s changed the man hour requirements for tobacco farming from 450 hours per acre in the late 1940s to 246 hours by 1971.

Discussion Questions

  1. Looking at the pictures, what are some of the main differences you notice? How did the work of farming tobacco change with the introduction of machines? Did the people doing the work change? What are the advantages that the machines provided? Do you notice any disadvantages?
  2. Planting Tobacco by HandHarvesting Tobacco by HandPrepping Tobacco for Curing

    Early Mechanized TransplanterMechanical Tobacco HarvesterPutting Tobacco in a Bulk Curing Bin

  3. Reading the summary from the extension document on the field study of mechanical equipment for tobacco farming what arguments does he make for using new machines to harvest tobacco? What arguments could be made against using machines for the work? How could this affect how tobacco farms work?
  4. Labor Requirements for Tobacco Growing
  5. After watching the video about the new bulk curing barns, what thoughts do you have about how this will affect the farmer? How will it affect his family, especially his children? Do you think the mechanized barn is a good change?
  6. Click Here to View the Film

To view a print out version of the primary sources, click here.

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