BLOUNTS CREEK — Laughter fills the early morning air as a group of folks huddle around a trailer loaded with fragrant, sticky tobacco leaves.
For most of them, the work is familiar and they go about it as if it’s second nature. They share anecdotes and stories about the “good old days,” realizing all the while that they are keeping a mostly-forgotten practice alive.
It’s tobacco priming time in the “Mouth of the Creek” community in Blounts Creek.
For Elbert Foreman, it’s simply a way of life.
“I’ve been farming, working in tobacco, all my life,” said the 78-year-old farmer, who recalls long, hot days in the fields as a mere youngster.
As a farmer, Foreman isn’t a rarity in Beaufort County. But what does set him apart are the methods he uses to grow what was once one of the South’s biggest crops.
Foreman’s is a labor intensive operation. There’s no state of the art equipment for him as he farms his four acres of tobacco on land owned by his family since the 1930s.
On Foreman’s farm, tobacco leaves are primed by hand in the field. For those who don’t understand the terminology, that means to break them off from the tobacco stalk. The leaves are ripe when they turn a certain shade of yellowish-green.
Once primed, the leaves are put in a tobacco truck, or trailer, and then taken out of the fields. In the earliest days, the tobacco leaves were taken from the fields using “mule power.” Foreman has advanced with the times in that he uses a tractor, a circa 1950s International Harvester Super A.
The tobacco trucks are moved to an area where other workers stand at the ready. They pull through the leaves, gathering them in bunches of three or so at a time before handing them off to another worker, called a tier or looper.
That worker ties the bunches by hand to a rough-hewn tobacco stick using cotton twine. Each tier has his or her own preferred method; some use a single loop while others vow the only way to do it is with a double loop. The stick is positioned on a tie-horse, which bears some resemblance to a quilt rack.
As a stick is filled, it is moved to an open shelter or “piled down” across a tarp on the ground. Before the day’s work is done, the sticks — numbering 400 in Foreman’s operation — will be placed in a tobacco barn, for curing.
The curing process takes five or six days; then the tobacco is removed from the sticks and taken to market. Foreman sells his crop at auction in Williamston.
Using more modern practices, farmers can use a machine to harvest the leaves. The harvest is then placed directly into a bulk barn or container and cured.
That eliminates much of the work and, according to some purists, most of the enjoyment of tobacco farming.
Foreman’s crew this summer includes Cora Carter, a Blounts Creek native who left home for a time. She lived in or visited 47 states and made New York her home base for more than 20 years.
Despite a stroke that temporarily slowed her down, but didn’t break her spirit, Carter jumped at the opportunity to work in tobacco again.
“I’ve been doing this for 62 years, ever since I was 6 years old,” she said. “And I haven’t forgotten a thing!”
Carter handed a bunch of leaves to Joyce Gay, a tier who nodded in agreement.
“I got out of this for a while, but I’ve picked right up where I left off,” Gay said with a smile. “Once you learn to do this, you do not forget.”
They’ve enjoyed the opportunity to initiate some “fresh blood” this summer.
Teenaged Antonio Guion, a rising freshman at Southside High School, is learning from the best. This is his first year working tobacco, and his elders have been generous in sharing advice and tips. He said he’ll be back next year.
Donald Foreman started in tobacco when he was 5 years old, working for his father. He said Guion is getting the hang of it.
“He’s out here trying,” Foreman said. “He’s doing good.”
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