Editor’s Note: This is the eighth 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.
September started the way August ended. It can be summed up in one word — tobacco.
It is hard to imagine there could be a more labor-intensive crop to plant, raise and take to market.
Produce farmers may disagree, but when considering all the different elements of raising tobacco over such a long period of time, it certainly is hard to argue against its place atop a chart titled, “Amount of Labor Required to Market a Crop.”
There certainly is no comparison in Kentucky among such other commonly grown crops as corn, soybeans, hay and wheat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kentucky ranks second only to North Carolina in acreage of tobacco grown. Following the commonwealth, there is a significant drop to such states as Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Bruce Quarles and his family make up one small cog in the tobacco production market, but watching them and listening to them, it is easy to see how important the crop is to their livelihood.
The countless hours of labor and gallons of sweat will all pay off when the crop is sold in late November or early December. Last year tobacco was selling for $1.90 to $2 a pound, and with about 50,000 pounds now curing in the barns, it is easy to calculate how that income will be the biggest revenue producer for the farmers.
There has, however, been considerable expense, everything from seed, fertilizer and weed control to the money paid to migrant workers who helped top, cut and house the burley.
On a steamy early August afternoon, Travis Quarles was demonstrating how tobacco is cut.
Taking one of the sticks that had earlier been dropped in the rows, he plunged it into the ground, at an angle, and stuck a pointed metal spear on top.
“You cut from two rows at a time, taking three stalks from each row,” he said. “You bend the stalk and cut it with one swing (of the tomahawk).
“With your tomahawk still in your hand, you push the stalk over the spear. You try to not have to move more than a body length the whole time. You cut and swing back and spear.”
There are six stalks put on each stick. The first is put at a slight angle, and then the others are staggered so the stick will not fall over.
“It is a technique, and every cutter has his own technique. Everyone cuts in a slightly different way. But what you are comfortable with becomes your technique.”
The key, he said, “is just keeping a good, steady pace.”
On three different farms, members of the Quarles family and five migrant workers began cutting the 20-plus acres of tobacco Aug. 20 and finished Sept. 6. They finished housing the crop Sept. 9.
When cutting is finished, the “sticks” of tobacco are placed on wagons that transport them to the barns and sheds where they will be hung to cure.
With a tractor pulling two wagons next to the field, two rows are transferred to the wagons at a time. One man is on each wagon and one man throws the sticks from the row closest to the wagon while two men toss the sticks and stalks — each of which weighs about 40 pounds — from the second row.
“You better put your best man on the first row,” Travis Quarles said.
They prefer to load the wagons — as many as eight or 10 at a time — at night, so they can begin housing the next morning.
When using 20-foot wagons, they were able to put about 225 sticks on each wagon; the 25-foot wagons were holding about 300 sticks.
The migrant workers are paid per stick, receiving 45 cents for each one cut and housed.
Doing some quick math, Travis Quarles estimated it would cost about $11,000 to pay the workers for their labor.
He, his brother, Steven and their father had planned to cut more themselves, but a situation with some of the acreage caused them to allow the migrant workers to work all the crop.
“The suckers started, and when that happens you have to go ahead and get it cut,” Travis Quarles said.
On the day a reporter watched the crew hang tobacco in a barn, the leader of the migrant workers was standing on a plank balanced on a 55-gallon drum.
A native of Mexico, the 28-year-old said he has been in the U.S. for 13 years and calls Florida home. During the winters, he helps bale pine needles that are used for bedding in horse stalls.
Among the four other migrant workers was his nephew, who has stayed in Kentucky the past three winters to work on a dairy farm.
While they are working, Spanish music plays through one of the men’s cell phones. But they are showing one sign of being acclimated to being in Kentucky — during a break each downed two bottles of Winchester-brewed Ale 8-One.
During the lunch break, they were drinking large plastic bottles of Yoga Vera Coconut Flavored Water, which they purchase at a Mexican grocery.
The crew chief said he and his four workers would cut and house about 80 acres. After finishing for the Quarles family, they were taking a day off to do laundry and do grocery shopping. The next day they were starting work on another Franklin County farm.
On the final day of housing, Travis Quarles had nothing but compliments for their work.
“This has been a good crew, probably the best we’ve ever had,” he said. “They get here on time every morning at 8 ready to work and we have worked until about 8:30 every night. We’ve lost two days due to rain but have worked 19 of the past 21 days.”
He said the workers cut 1,100 sticks each one day but averaged about 700 sticks a day.
“They work hard and don’t take long breaks,” Quarles said. “They cut a row, walk back, get a drink of water, sharpen their knife and start another row.
“They know they don’t get paid until everything is housed, so they have incentive to do a good job and incentive to get done.”
‘Housing’ the burley
On this day while housing, Steven Quarles was on the wagon. He would hand or throw each stick to the crew leader, standing on the plank. He in turn would hand it up for the man above him to bend over and grab.
That man was responsible for hanging two rows, one at his head, one at his feet, and also had to hand the sticks up to the man on the top row.
Because the six stalks are on one end of the stick, the other — or long — end is what is handed up to make it easier to grab.
Being on the top row is a trade off: you have to handle fewer sticks, but it is hotter at the top of the barn.
Once a stick is hung between two rafters, the men then evenly spread out the six stalks on each stick. This allows air to flow so the tobacco can cure better.
The sticks were being hung about six inches apart, also for better circulation.
Curing in the barn
Drive through the countryside now and you will see how barns with tobacco hanging in them have vents open so air can travel through. The heady smell of burley curing also fills the fall air.
“I’m happy with this tobacco,” Travis Quarles said. “It looks good, has that nice red color to it.
“The air simply helps it cure but you have to be careful because you don’t want it to cure too fast; it won’t be a good color.”
The tobacco will hang for about two months, so the stripping process — removing the leaves from the stalks after taking the stalks off the sticks — can begin in late October or early November.
The vents on the barn are opened or closed depending on the humidity level outside the barn. Moisture is required for the crop to cure properly and sometimes must be “trapped” in the barn when the outside air becomes too dry. The plants must be moist when stripping begins or the precious leaves will be too dry to handle and crumble.
The Quarles family will have about 55,000 pounds of tobacco to sell this year. Travis has 30,000 pounds under contract, with 20,000 pounds headed to R.J. Reynolds in Lexington and 10,000 pounds to Phillip Morris in Carrollton.
Bruce and Steven both have contracts with Philip Morris; Bruce for about 15,000 pounds and Steven for about 10,000 pounds.