Over lunch with my dad this week, I asked him what he would be doing this time of year if he were still farming tobacco. The first part of March would have been the end of a short two-month lull between when the last of the previous crop was auctioned and the next crop would be started. It would be a little too early for planting. But, I’m sure that tiny box of seed, a cube of less than two square inches containing the summer’s entire crop would be waiting. What my dad related was much the same as I remembered and wrote, first as a Toastmasters speech and then a blog post. In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, here’s my rather lengthy memoir of those days.
I recently ran across this Youtube video of Stompin’ Tom Connors singing ‘Tillsonburg’ and even though I was too young to really experience working on a tobacco farm, it did remind me of the early years of my childhood and provides a tiny look at what a hard way of life tobacco farming was.
My father grew up around the tobacco farms of Tillsonburg, Ontario. At a very young age, he was working in the fields of his family farm, and quit school at thirteen to work at it full time. Eventually, the family–the whole family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins moved north, to where tobacco was being grown just south of Nottawasaga Bay. He began farming on the farm my parents still live on in 1958. They grew their last crop and sold the ‘rights’ in the early seventies. The growing season in this more northerly clime is too short for tobacco and the industry died out. For a while, tobacco farming supported many area businesses and our small village had two variety stores, a hardware store and a grocery store as well as a branch of the Toronto Dominion Bank, and several garages. While the size of the village has actually increased since, the number of business has dwindled to a pizza joint, variety store and garage. The bank is being lovingly ‘restored’, and the other stores have been converted into ‘apartment’ buildings.
I was probably about nine when my father stopped growing. Farm hands were brought in, often from the First Nations reserve on Christian Island. Other workers were hired from the community, and of course family members also pitched in. Spring planting started with the steaming of the seed beds in the green house. Large flat metal enclosed ‘pans’ would be filled with steam generated by a modified steam powered tractor. This sanitized the soil and prevented the spreading of soil borne disease. The plants were started indoors, and as they grew they went into the green house soil.The transplanting was done by hand, one plant at a time. Boards would be set to span from the center aisle of the greenhouse, to the outer wall. On this, the planters would sit, taking each plant out of the soil When they could no longer reach plants, the board was moved until the whole green house was full. As the plants grew it took constant monitoring to ventilate the greenhouse–too hot and it could cook the plants, too cold would chill them. An overhead watering system kept the soil hydrated.
When the plants were sufficiently grown, they would be transplanted into the fields. Timing was critical, especially in an area where late frosts can destroy a tender crop. The planter would have seats, a water barrel, fertilizer hopper and plant boxes. A person would place each plant in the rubber ‘fingers’ of the planter, to be carried down and set in the soil along with a spray of water and helping of fertilizer. Any gaps left by the machine would be planted by hand with a jack planter. Like any crop. sun and rain in sufficient amounts were essential. When mother nature did not cooperate, irrigation would be put in place and it’s still common to find irrigation ponds in odd corners of fields. The 3 or 4 inch pipe was taken out to the fields on wagons and set out by hand. Moving the pipes and sprinklers from field to field was laborious. Hail could cause serious damage.
Pests of the plant and legged variety needed to be kept in check. Hand hoeing each field was common as a tiller only pulled up the weeds in between the rows. One year (maybe more?) we had our crops sprayed by airplane. A very common pesticide was DDT, a white-blue powder I still remember the smell of.
If during the growing season, the plants grew flower heads, they were removed in a process called ‘topping’. If they grew secondary leaves beneath the main ones, ‘suckering’ would be done. All was done by hand, one plant at a time.
When the plants were close to maturation harvest began with the picking or ‘priming’ of the ‘sand leaves’ ,the bottom-most leaves that were the first to mature. The priming continued up the plant stalk until all the leaves were removed. This meant each plant would be picked over several times in the course of the harvest. A draft horse pulled the ‘boat’ up and down the rows as the primers filled it with leaves. When the boat was full, it was left at the end of the row, where the tractor would hook onto it, and pull it to the kiln yard. The boats were narrow, so care had to be taken not to tip the load.
Once in the kiln yard, after the tiers, usually women, sewed the leaves to the tobacco slates–using a ‘tying machine’ which was like a large sewing machine with a conveyor. One person would lay the leaves in a line on the belt, the next would make sure the slat was placed along the top of the stems, and another layered leaves on top of that. The whole thing would then feed under the sewing machine. I can remember the consternation that occurred when the tying machine broke down. Pervious to the existence of tying machines, the leaves would have been hand tied to the slats. Every step of the tobacco growing process back then was labour intensive with back breaking days in hot sun.
From the tying machine, the tobacco attached to the slats would be put on a conveyor up to the top of the kiln. Large doors about eight feet in the air opened up to allow the passage of the tobacco to the kiln hanger. A good kiln hanger was a valuable asset, as the kiln had to be packed properly so the tobacco cured evenly. The kiln was filled from the top down, each slat being hung on rafters, allowing air flow. When it was filled all the doors were closed and the curing began. Beneath were several propane burners covered in wire baskets to prevent leaves falling on the open ring of flame. I can remember the muffled hiss of the burners, and the lovely golden smell of the curing tobacco–a far cry from the foul stink of cigarette smoke. Picking up falling leaves before the kiln was closed and taking them back to the tying table was kid’s work.
With the tobacco in the kiln and the burners going day and night, fire was a real danger. I remember talk of kilns going up and apparently one of ours did. They had to be monitored day and night, with someone sleeping in the bunk house so they could check several times a night.
Once the tobacco was cured it was moved into racks in the barn where it was stored until it ‘stripping time’. This happened when the weather turned cold. We had a strip room and steam room. The tobacco, still attached to the slats were hung in a steam room to soften the leaves and prevent them from shattering while being handled. The softened tobaccos was carried from the steam room by a conveyor and women who stood at the conveyor pulled the chain stitching out that held the tobacco to the slat and packed it in bale boxes. The bale box compacted the tobacco into a tight bale which was wrapped in thick brown paper tied with string.Each bale was marked to identify which leaves–sand leaves I remember being amazed at the efficient way my father folded the paper around the bale and tightly tied the string–the sound of the string as he pulled it taught. The bales were then stored until they were sold at auction. There would be a brief lull until the whole cycle began with the ordering of new seed in the spring.
Gets me, every time I hear it.
I was playing the piano today, and as I fumbled around on the keys as I do almost every day, I was reminded of a Toastmasters speech I gave a few years ago.
Do It Badly
How many times in our lives have we been told practice makes perfect, good enough isn’t good enough, practice doesn’t make perfect-perfect practice makes perfect, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. How often does a magazine cover catch our eye that extols that we bake the perfect cake? Make this the best holiday ever! Find the perfect gift. Drive the perfect car? In our search for perfection we may not realize:
Perfect doesn’t exist.
In fact, doing our best may not always be what it is cracked up to be. Maybe striving for the best might take some of the spontaneity, silliness, and fun out of life. Wouldn’t life be dull without those things? Wouldn’t life dish up more disappointment, dissatisfaction, and disillusion if we always demanded and expected perfection?
This idea really hit home to me one day while I was in a kindergarten class. The children were set to work drawing a picture for Thanksgiving on a piece of construction paper using crayons. One by one they were to take their picture to the teacher and show it to her for her approval. One little boy took his picture up and presented it to the teacher. No, she said shaking her head. This isn’t your best work. I want you to take that back to your seat and try again.
I was surprised. This was a five year old with a crayon? How do you know if that is his best work? Are there standards for five-year-old crayon art that I haven’t learned? How could this child improve on his art that would satisfy the teacher? I began to worry.
I started to think about things I haven’t put my best effort into. If any of you heard me play the piano you’d know exactly what I was talking about. I play piano, and I really play very badly. I’ve taken about 3 lessons, so I’m pretty much self-taught. I don’t practice, I just play. I mainly play really slow romantic songs because I read music really slowly and my fingers take a while to find the keys. My playing is so bad that one time a 6-year old I was looking after commented while I was playing: Do you know any songs?
But even my bad piano playing brings me a lot of joy. I love piano music and I love playing the piano so much I am happy to be able to play it badly. Someday I’ll take lessons and perhaps have time for that perfect practice. But for now, I am happy to occasionally hit the right notes and make something that sounds like music –if only to myself.
Another thing I do badly is watercolour painting. Watercolours lend themselves to imperfection. The single act of adding the wrong color to a wet piece of paper can lead to masterpiece or disaster. With watercolour you just don’t know. I’ve even taken a watercolour course. And I am still bad at it. What the course did was open the avenues for new imperfection. I can now do watercolours using several different techniques badly.
My water color pictures will never hang on the wall, in fact, they’re probably only suitable for lining a boot tray. Most look a bit muddy anyway. But I like to watch as the paint mixes and blends on the page. I like using the different types of brushes I have, just to see what I can do with them. I like making the paper wet and then when I’m done taking the hair dryer to it and watching it dry. I don’t care about the perfect results. I don’t care that no one else likes my painting. It’s perfectly alright that I do it all badly. Because it’s fun!
So how many times do we fret because the icing on the cake turned out oddly? Or you made your spouse breakfast and the scrambled eggs turned out like little bits of styrofoam/ Or the house isn’t perfectly cleaned, or the car windshield has nose prints on it right after we polished it—because we live in and use those things? They exist for our enjoyment, we don’t exist for their maintenance. So what if the beans don’t get planted in a perfectly straight row? Mother nature never worries about straight rows! So what if we do something badly, or imperfect? Especially if it brings you joy, if it’s fun, if it takes you away from your routine. If it brings a smile to your face than it’s worth doing badly.
This makes me happy.
I don’t know why, but I always feel that new year comes too closely after Christmas. There was a time when the new year was celebrated in March, and that sounds like a good idea to me. Spring, after all, truly feels like the beginning of a new year after the cold, sleepy months of winter. Or, perhaps Christmas should be moved to the end of January, to give us a bit of a breather between holidays, and ensure that we will have a white Christmas. That would end that stress!
The worst part of this time of year is putting all the little decorations we’ve accumulated over the years. Especially this sort of thing:
It will be about eleven more months before we see them again.
Again, or perhaps still, I’ve been making stuff. Hats, scarves, thing as made of paper, fabric and yarn. My spinning wheel still sits in the corner, waiting for me to learn how to use it. Bags of alpaca fiber are sitting in bags, waiting to be made into something. While I figure out my next move, I’ve been wet felting, more or less successfully.
New Years eve was very quiet here, and we were in bed by 10. That meant I was ready for a ride on New Year’s day. No pictures, I was too busy going around in circles. We had planned to spend some time with some of my husband’s family, but the weather got in the way—I’m a very nervous driver and when two snowflakes fall, my courage does too. So we still feel like we have a bit of holidaying to catch up on.
I hope you have a happy 2017.