Burley Harvest

At dawn, Kentucky’s bluegrass emerges out of the fog. The fields are heavy-laden with mist. Down the sloping cropland, adjacent to Salt River, the tobacco harvest begins. I cultivated these plants from seed, back in the early spring when the infant sprouts shivered through cold nights, kept warm only by the white canvas covering their float bed.

Now, the Burley tobacco stands almost six feet tall. Golden leaves stretch proudly, crisscrossing the rows. Tip leaves rise at attention, upright and perfect, fully aware of their value. As the morning dew burns off, slanted rays of sunshine quickly warm the patch. The men of the cutting crew are at work.

I use a tobacco knife older than myself, double or perhaps triple my age. The freshly sharpened blade, a thin streak of silver on a rusted head, cuts through the stalks. One by one, tobacco falls in this Mercer County field. Like punctuation at the end of every chop, the stalk is speared onto a wooden tobacco stick. These sticks, too, are much older than myself. They have been stored in the barn for years, thinking under a cloud of dust that time had forgotten them.

It is primitive work; it is the harvest of tobacco, a process that has not changed in the last century. It looked the same to my grandparents and great-grandparents. The only thing different is that one generation has been laid to rest, and a new one has surprisingly taken its place, a knife in one hand and a stalk of Burley tobacco in the other, performing an art all but lost in modern Kentucky.

I stop halfway up the row and look back, pleased with what I have accomplished, but dreading yet all that still stands. I’m satisfied to see the leaning, loaded sticks. It is a nostalgic sight that I have not seen since I was a young boy.

Some of my helpers have white hair, tough men who performed this work in their youth, and never thought it might call them back now. They cut with familiarity and a sudden precision.

My father is one of them.

“It’s been a long time since I done this,” he says, jamming a stick in the soft dirt. He cuts and spears six plants in rapid succession. “A long time.”

He then cuts a second stick even faster than the first. Then a third. After this, my father is gone, transported back to his youth, recalling a sunburnt memory somewhere behind him. Perhaps he is racing his now deceased brother to the end of the row, or once again teaching his firstborn son how to cut. Maybe he hears his father’s voice echo out of the past. Cutting tobacco. It has not changed. One falls into a rhythm and flow of labor. My father is lost in both his thoughts and work.

“The trick to this,” he says to no one in particular, “is to not raise up.”

He skewers plants without more than a glance at the spear. His age has vanished. Suddenly he is 40… 30… 20. With each stick he sheds a year. He does not groan as he bends, nor do his knees bother him. It is as if, when stooping to grab the next stick, he eludes himself. He raises back up a much younger man, the man who did this work when tobacco was champion of local agriculture. But when the row is done, and he stops cutting, reality catches him and he aches with the weariness of years behind him.

“There’s easier ways to make money,” he tells me, breathless.

It is not about the money. I am a full time teacher with benefits. I do not need to raise this crop. It is the most difficult work I have ever done, and I marvel at how my father makes it seem effortless.

Someday soon, the sun will set on this chapter of Kentucky’s history, and one’s ability to raise a small acreage, such as I have, will be a thing of the past. The only farmers still holding on are over the age of 60, and their help consists of migrant workers, a necessity to harvest and house this intensive crop.

I reach the end of the row. I am sticky, hot, and tired. My back hurts in a way it never has. I know only that I must write about this, that there is something special in this crude work. I have heard it said that the beauties of farmland are reflected in the faces of its caretakers. And in the same vein, the hardships of a tobacco harvest are equally mirrored in the faces, the gaits, and quiet demeanors of the determined farmers who once did it without a second thought. They never paused and reflected in the way that I do now, but cut the next row because it needed to be done. It was not a novelty to them, but hard work that crafted and molded a fine community of people.

After the cut sticks have wilted for three days, they must be picked up and housed in the barn.

A longtime family friend brings his son to the patch. He is eleven years old, and has never experienced a tobacco harvest. His young eyes are bright as his father teaches him about the work. The old John Deere crawls along the edge of the patch, pulling a wagon. Cut sticks are handed up and piled. The evening sun has disappeared behind the barn. A pink and purple sky paints itself across the horizon. Twilight. A crescent moon fades into appearance just before dark. A warm evening breeze sweeps across the now vacant tobacco patch. A few weeds are all that stand in the lonesome field. Mice and snakes scurry for a new home.

My helpers are too old to climb in the barn. We don’t have enough people to hang these couple acres. The only people willing to help are Hispanic migrant workers who speak no English, except for their crew lead. Fourteen dollars an hour goes a long way for these men, and much of their pay travels back home to Mexico, support for their wives and parents and families. One worker tells me, while wiping sweat from his brow, that his wife is pregnant with their first child—2,000 miles away. He labors over this tobacco crop with no interest aside from money. With no citizenship or ability to speak English, his opportunities are limited. Farmwork, however, is the opportunity. These men perform this grueling labor because the money allows them to better themselves. One does not need to know English in order to cut and hang tobacco. I hope that these men know the admiration I have for them. Working and learning from them is one of the finest pleasures of the season.

It is a clash of culture and language. It is a beautiful ceremony, the gathering of blistered hands, some out of desperation, raising this tobacco crop into the rafters of the old barn.

When the harvest is done, and the fluid chatter of Spanish has left the farm, I am alone. I sit on the empty wagon and look up. Tobacco drapes the interior with a golden-yellow brilliance. The barn, like the sticks and knives, thought time had forgotten it. It believed itself to be a relic from another age, left behind and worthy of unbothered collapse. The barn breathes, sighs relief with the fresh weight of three thousand harvested sticks. The barn no longer knows what year it is.

I pick up all the leaves that fell on the dirt floor, scatter them out over the wagon, and rejoice. It becomes dark again. A whippoorwill cries out as I leave the field. That is a lonesome sound, I think to myself.

From a distance, I see tobacco leaves hanging in the barn. I look in the rearview mirror. It would not surprise me if my grandfather, uncle, and brother stood in the barn together, watching me go, as if they never died at all, but simply crossed the pasture and went over the ridge, just out of sight. Family members relegated to memory, no different from the timeworn crop in late summer sunshine, growing along the border of history.

GABRIEL TUGGLE is a writer, teacher, and farmer in central Kentucky, where he was born and raised. His fiction has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, and he considers the rich culture of his home state to be his most significant inspiration. He lives with his wife and two dogs.