Durham County tobacco farmers Ronald and Patricia Russell believe they are the last generation that will farm the family land with tobacco, or with any crop at all. In the back area off the main Durham Art Guild gallery, an intriguing small exhibition is named for their plight: Last Generation pairs 27 photographs by Cathyrn Jirlds with five short texts by the Russells. The 11-by-14 photographs show the beauty of the plants and indicate the pleasure and satisfaction of an agrarian livelihood, but the texts quietly tell of the bleak agronomic and economic realities that are bringing the tobacco-farming era to an end in the Carolina Piedmont.
Visually, tobacco is a wonderful plant. Jirlds shows it from early growth–the seedlings still in the starter blocks–all the way to cured leaf at auction. The seedlings look so pert, and the young plants so robust against the cultivated orange dirt. When mature, the plants have a lush majesty, with crowns of delicately colored trumpet flowers topping tall columns of succulent green. At harvest, the fields lose their glory. The great leaves are plucked, leaving rows of stubbly stalks bereft of their leafy cloaks. Green leaf disappears into the curing barns–and emerges as fragrant gold: brightleaf tobacco.
Even though Jirlds is careful to give a good idea in her pictures of the physical labor involved in raising tobacco, it is easy to understand why you’d want to farm. Looking at these photographs, you want to be the one guiding the tractor along the rows in the early morning light, pulling the friable earth up closer to the growing stalks. You want to be the one checking your plants in the cool of the evening, when dusk darkens the grooved leaf veins and the flowers release their scent. What you don’t want is to be the speaker of all those bleak words, or the one trying figure out how to make the money come out right.
Small-scale farmers like the Russells are caught in an expensive cycle. The weeds, insects and diseases always ready to overrun or consume the crop quickly become resistant to the chemicals designed to kill them–so more, new chemicals are required. (Organic farming of tobacco, while no longer completely unknown, is very rare.) Russell doesn’t have enough land to rotate his crop and still make enough money to keep the whole operation afloat. So he pours on more expensive fertilizer. This kind of farming is expensive for the farmer, and for all the rest of us as well, since it wears out the land and fills the waterways with pollutants and excess nutrients.
Years ago, farmers began switching from the old, highly picturesque, wood-cured firing barns to curing with LP gas in the ugly metal “barns” that now clutter the countryside. This method of curing is a lot easier on the farmer, but now it turns out that the LP gas leaves a residue in the leaf, and the barns must all be retrofitted to filter out that residue–at the cost of $5,000 per barn. Also, leaf taken to market must now be baled, rather than brought in great loose heaps wrapped in burlap. A baler costs $7,500, and is used only a couple of months each year.
Then there’s the weather and labor problems. On the average, one crop in seven fails due to conditions beyond the farmer’s control. Bounty from the good years must be reserved to cover the years of devastation. And who’s to do the seasonal work? The countryside is no longer full of teens eager to work tobacco for spending money, and the farmers must rely on migrant labor, more expensive because housing must be provided. Patricia Russell works in town, 20 miles away from the farm. She has to: Gross profit on 40 acres of tobacco (the Russells’ current allotment) is only about $10,000.
This modest little show of documentary photographs, in addition to being interesting to look at, throws light on one of North Carolina’s current intractable problems. Tobacco is a fading industry, thank goodness, but it has kept small farms alive in this state. The question is, can we–and do we want to–keep small farming a viable part of our economic mix? We throw millions of dollars at industry to attract and keep it. Will we do the same for farmers, encouraging new crops and cleaner methods? We are nearly through with tobacco here, but Jirlds’ photographs show something precious beyond the particular crop. We should be careful not to lose it.