Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment of a yearlong series that each month examines the work, lifestyle and passion for the land, animals and crops exhibited by Franklin County farmer Bruce Quarles and his family.
Though Bruce Quarles farms full time, his sons, Steven and Travis, do not. They both have full time jobs — Steven with the Frankfort Plant Board; Travis with the Franklin County Road Department — and help their father after they get off work and on weekends.
So sometimes they must weigh the old adage of “time is money” when deciding on using additional help to perform labor intensive tasks in the tobacco fields they tend.
Such was the case in August, when the Quarles family topped and cut some of the crop, but used migrant workers to do the majority of the acreage.
The first week of the month, the father and sons were topping tobacco in a field in Swallowfield. But, the bulk of the 15-plus acres of burley they raise had already been topped using migrant workers.
“There were 11 Hispanic workers and they topped in one day what it would take us a week (to top),” Steven Quarles said. “They start early in the morning, and in the mornings the tobacco is wet and it snaps easier.”
On this day, the three men were topping two rows at a time, while the migrant workers, because they are in the fields all day, will top only one at a time.
“Your arms, especially your shoulders, get sore if you are doing two at a time,” Bruce Quarles said. “They do one row at a time because they are topping all day long.”
Lesson in hard work
Topping tobacco is another lesson in hard work leading to higher yield. Tobacco is a commodity sold by the pound, so anything that can be done to add weight to the plant before it is cut is a good thing.
The blooming suckers growing from the top of the plants are easy to spot, but Travis Quarles also pointed out what are called “buttons,” where suckers are present but have yet to bloom.
“You have to top every plant and you have to do it by hand,” he said. “If you don’t, the suckers will continue to grow.
“When you top off the sucker, that puts the energy back in the plant. If not, the growth will go in the bloom and the suckers, and the buyers will not buy sucker leaves.”
Though the suckers are at the top of the plant, removing them doesn’t just affect that area; in fact it also results in increased root growth.
In essence, the nutrients and moisture more easily reach the other leaves, which increases yield, which in turn increases the price per acre. It also raises the alkaloid and sugar content of cured leaf.
They top the plants when they are about shoulder height so some quick growth will happen at the end of the growing season.
Sure enough, just a week after being topped, the plants had shot up at least another foot or so.
Travis recalled the day seven years ago when they were topping tobacco and his mother, Charlotte, arrived at the field.
She told him to get to the hospital because his daughter was being born.
This year, he was telling how Belle Quarles’ birthday — she turned 7 Aug. 5 — featured her first sleepover.
It was interesting listening to a man in a tobacco field talk about five young girls and the night they had swimming, making bracelets, jumping on a trampoline and playing badminton.
He laughed when a reporter quipped,
“There must have been pizza in there somewhere?”
“Oh yeah, pizza and cake,” he said.
August is a big month for birthdays in the family. Steven Quarles turned 30 Aug. 22 and his son, Bailey, had his second birthday Aug. 9.
The work is not done for the day when the field is topped. It must be sprayed within 24 hours so the chemicals will kill the buds, or buttons, and thus the suckers.
Travis jumped on a John Deere 600-A Hi-Cycle sprayer that despite its age started like a charm … at least this time.
“We’ve had that thing 20 years and it was old when we bought it,” Steven said, laughing.
The tank on the sprayer is filled with several different chemicals, among them the contact killer Butralin Sucker Control, the name of which is certainly self-explanatory.
Also in the mix is Orthene 97, an insecticide that uses both contact and systemic activity. It both penetrates the plants and has up to three weeks of residual control.
The third component is Drexel Sucker-Stuff, Liquid Growth Retardant, which helps stunt the growth of suckers.
The chemicals are mixed with 40-45 gallons of water per acre, the tank holding enough to spray about four acres at a time.
Bruce Quarles said the tobacco was about seven to 10 days ahead of schedule, because of the rash of rains this summer.
He noted it had grown quickly, causing some of the leaves to be thinner than usual.
“Last year was the best year we ever had because of the dry weather,” he said. “Tobacco is a tropical plant, it likes hot, dry weather.”
Types of pain
Bruce Quarles related two stories of events that had happened in recent weeks, both a bit painful.
Five acres of soybeans were sprayed with Roundup and every one of the plants died — the next day. This was weird because the seed for the plants is called Roundup Ready, meaning it is resistant to the chemical.
There is no explanation for what happened, and the company that manufactured the seed agreed to replace it.
Quarles was still hobbling from the other incident that happened, when he tripped over a piece of plastic and fell in a barn, landing directly on his right knee.
“You don’t know how often you hit your knee during the average day … well now I know,” he said.
The same John Deere equipment used to spray the tobacco was in use in a different manner a few weeks later when Travis, Steven and their mother, Charlotte, were dropping sticks in a tobacco field off Sullivan Lane.
Travis was driving while his mother and brother were seated on wooden planks on the rear of the tractor, the space between them stacked high with the sticks the tobacco would be placed on after it is cut.
The sticks are dropped just 4-6 inches apart. After the tobacco is cut, six plants will be “speared” onto each stick.
Travis said an average cutter could chop about 120 sticks an hour but he noted a video on YouTube shows cutters doing 200 sticks an hour.
“We used to pay 12 cents a stick to cut, so an average cutter could make about $13 an hour,” Travis Quarles said.
The boys constantly show the respect they have for their parents, often bringing up how things were done in years past.
“Years ago, nobody had a Hi-Boy,” Travis Quarles said while navigating through the rows. “Dad used to drop them by hand. You would pick up a stack of 50 to 60 sticks and throw it over your shoulder.”
Many of the sticks they were dropping on this afternoon were estimated to be at least 50 years old.
“They aren’t on the ground long, they rarely get wet, and they are stored in a barn,” Steven Quarles said. “They last a long time.”
Picking one up, he said, “Daddy said they used to sharpen them with a hatchet.”
The old sticks were hand split but the newer ones are cut at a sawmill.
Old saw blades are used to make the tomahawks used to cut the plants. They are sharpened with a hand file every few rows.
They are also called tobacco knives but many call them tomahawks because that is what they resemble.
With the tobacco topped and sticks dropped, it would soon by time to cut and house this year’s crop.