It was the smoking barns that first drew me down the rabbit hole of learning about the tobacco plant, Nicotiana. I had no idea the billows of smoke that hovered around these barns came from a curing process that has been used to preserve tobacco leaves for hundreds of years.
In retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t call the fire department! My friends who grew up on farms with smoking tobacco barns said strangers were always coming to their door to inform them their barns were on fire.
These alluring barns with their hovering fog-like smoke are everywhere in the agriculturally rich fields of Kentucky.
It wasn’t until I opened the door of this historical barn that I became enamored with the mottled leaves hanging on racks that rested on a series of ever-rising rafters and the low-burning fire beneath.
The architecture of the barns, the tantalizing smell of the drying leaves, and the agricultural history associated with the growth and harvest of tobacco have captivated my attention ever since.
The Tobacco Barns
There are two types of barns built for curing tobacco in Kentucky: those specifically constructed for air-curing and those built for wood-firing. Which barn one uses depends on how the tobacco will ultimately be finished. Flavored tobaccos like those used in pipe blends, snuff and tobacco chew, are smoke or fire-cured in barns that are tightly sealed and have smokestacks. Cigarette and cigar blends, which use a higher grade tobacco known locally as Burley, are simply air-cured in barns that allow for a cross breeze.
Tobacco that is to be air-cured goes into barns built for air-circulation with small open spaces between the wall slats that allow air to blow through.
They do not have smokestacks.
Here is another one. This air-curing style barn is my favorite.
Notice the light coming in through the open spaces in the walls. And the rafters. Notice the rafters. So beautiful! When I am standing in this barn, I feel like I am standing in a church.
Here is a photo of the same barn filled to the ceiling with tobacco. There are seven levels of rafters to hang the tobacco.
When the wind is blowing, the sound of the leaves rustling is lovely. Add to that the smell of the tobacco and the whole thing is intoxicating. Take a look at this video.
There are a few telltale signs that a roadside barn is built for wood-firing. Besides the smokestacks, there is always a stack of wood,
and a hill of sawdust near the barn, which are used to build and keep a low-burning fire smoldering on the floor of the barn for weeks.
Here is the interior of a historic wood-burning barn at The Land Between the Lakes Homeplace. The smoldering fire is built in ditches on the ground.
Compare that to the interior of a commercial wood-burning barn. Same concept, but in this barn, there is about six inches of firewood covered by a full 18 inches of sawdust.
To create the low-burning fire, the farmer makes a series of evenly spaced holes in each row of sawdust for the entire length of the barn. He then stuffs straw in each hole and pours a little diesel fuel into the holes. Once he ignites the straw, it burns and connects with the wood stack underneath. The fire gently smolders for about a week. At this particular barn, the entire process is repeated later for another week to finish off the dehydration and smoke-curing process. I’ve read that the goal of curing tobacco is to get the moisture count of the leaves down to twenty percent so they can be transported for finishing without crumbling.
I haven’t witnessed how the seeds are started, but a farmer told me they are started in seed trays and planted in the ground in May.
In July, the farmers “top” the plants, removing the flowering seed heads to encourage more robust leaf production. Any new leaves that try to grow are individually suckered off by farmers, or they are sprayed to halt new growth.
That brings us to late August. The plants turn yellow indicating they have ripened and are ready for harvest.
You can read up on the different varieties of light and dark tobacco leaves, and the sugar content of the leaves here.
The farmers begin the harvest process in late August or early September depending on the weather and ripeness of the tobacco leaves.
Here are the tools of the trade for harvest: a tobacco knife, a tobacco spear and a rack of tobacco sticks.
First, the stalks are chopped down at ground level with a tobacco knife. Meanwhile, someone goes up and down the rows of tobacco plants and places a tobacco harvesting stick on the ground about every six feet.
Next, a farmer comes through, picks up a stalk and pierces it with a black tobacco spear placed over a tobacco stick. The farmer threads up to six stalks onto each stick and then moves onto another stick. This process is called “sticking.”
This farmer kindly allowed me to take a video of him sticking. It follows.
The many speared piles look like a row of small haystacks when seen in a field.
Next, the stalk-laden sticks are gathered and laid across the top bars of a metal tobacco transporter.
The transporters are pulled by a tractor to the curing barn where the racks of stalks (on the sticks) are hauled up into the rafters of a barn for drying.
I thought for sure the farmers had some sort of lifting machine to do the job of raising the sticks up to the ceiling, however, they do not. It is all done by hand.
Another farmer named Ernesto graciously showed me how he and his team of men passed the sticks, loaded with stalks, up to the top row of rafters, bucket-brigade style. I love this video. It shows the hard work that goes into climbing up the rafters, passing the sticks up, and ultimately hanging the tobacco stalks to dry.
I am so grateful to the migrant farmers who allowed me to film them at what is a very hard job done in very hot weather.
Related Posts on Commercial Farming in the Area
Raising Sorghum Cane
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How Local Canola Crops are Grown
Farming Equipment 101: Harvesting Winter Wheat
I have enjoyed learning about the harvest and curing of tobacco. I would love to hear your stories, so please feel free to include a comment if you ever worked or lived on a tobacco farm and can shed more light on the practice of raising and harvesting tobacco.
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