One Saturday a couple of years ago, my girlfriend Brandee and I headed down to Conway to visit the Riverwalk, a quaint little spot on the Waccamaw perfect for a spur of the moment lunch date. As we were driving down Hwy 701 with the windows down, enjoying a pipe and a brief reprieve from the tangible humidity, we passed fields of lush green crops being harvested by large brown combines. I knew instantly that the crop in question was tobacco, acres and acres of soon-to be-Virginias, ripe and ready for harvest.
Growing up on a tobacco farm in the foothills of North Carolina, I was accustomed to this sight, but it had been some time since I'd seen the crop we enjoy everyday in its beginnings. There was an eerie continuity to the moment, passing by fields of the very same leaf that I used to help prime as a boy and I now enjoy, and hopefully help others enjoy, on a daily basis. The moment also offered some introspection into our hobby itself. We discuss the subtle complexities and merits of one finished blend or another, but how often do we really think about the tobacco plant itself, and the time and labor poured into cultivating it by farmers around the globe? I reflected on this thought for the remainder of the afternoon (much to Brandee's vexation).
Coincidentally, that night I happened across an agricultural article in a local newspaper on the status of South Carolina's tobacco crops. Being so close to the ocean, I was surprised to learn that Horry County (the county in which Smokingpipes resides) actually produces half of South Carolina's raw tobacco each year. What are the odds of that?
We discuss the subtle complexities and merits of one finished blend or another, but how often do we really think about the tobacco plant itself, and the time and labor poured into cultivating it by farmers around the globe?
If you should visit Horry County, it's important to remember that it's pronounced "'Orry," not, "hor-ee." Residents will correct you, with prejudice. It's how I learned. According to the article I found, 6,600 acres of the state's 13,000 acres of tobacco are grown right here in Horry County. At one time, this area was important globally for tobacco supply. It still is, to a large extent, but not nearly like it was. In Horry County, there's an annual Tobacco Heritage Day, with demonstrations by volunteers hand tying and stringing tobacco, held at the L.W. Paul Living History Farm. Tobacco has certainly not been forgotten. Driving away from urban centers invariably leads to tobacco fields, and they are beautiful, constant reminders of the importance of tobacco. The History Farm has been set up in early 20th-century fashion, with blacksmithing, a mill, a woodworking shop, and wood-stove-cooking demonstrations. Mules pull carts through the tobacco fields, where volunteers hand pick tobacco before stringing it to dry.
Celebrated is a time when families, neighbors and communities worked together, and worked hard, to harvest crops in the short time frames necessary.
Tobacco farming became especially important here in the late 1800s, adding enormously to the local and state economy. South Carolina has experienced three expansions and declines of tobacco production in its history. Settlers planted tobacco in the Charleston area in the 1670s and entered the world tobacco market at that time. However, Maryland and Virginia were growing tobacco as well, and supply kept prices down until rice became a more profitable crop, and most of South Carolina turned to rice as its leading export. In the 1760s, tobacco became an important crop again, especially in the backcountry, where water supply made rice an unprofitable crop. A rise in tobacco prices motivated farmers to start growing tobacco again. In 1799, production reached 10 million pounds. But cotton was becoming an important cash crop by that time, and by the 1810s, tobacco had again dramatically diminished in local agricultural importance.
South Carolina's Pee Dee region began the next tobacco expansion in the 1880s. Profits from cotton crops had fallen to a point called the "cotton depression." This was around the time that cigarettes were becoming popular, and demand for tobacco was growing, with tobacco crops reaping 10 times the profit that cotton could.
Driving away from urban centers invariably leads to tobacco fields, and they are beautiful, constant reminders of the importance of tobacco.
Prices again began dropping in the 1920s, even before the Great Depression brought harder times still. Tobacco farmers were particularly beset, many losing their farms. In 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act alleviated issues with overproduction with a government-sponsored cooperative of tobacco farmers that helped regulate production, bringing prices back up. Following WWII, price regulation was added, the cooperative purchasing any unsold tobacco for later resale. Pricing support and production regulation resulted in quotas of how much tobacco a farmer could grow, quotas that became valuable assets for growers. However, tobacco production has been declining in recent history. With the health scares of the 1970s, tobacco companies began developing overseas sources of tobacco, reducing domestic demand. By 1992, the number of tobacco farms had been reduced by 70 percent. Most had consolidated to accommodate quota cuts and reduced per-pound profits. Tobacco auctions became part of tobacco history, with manufacturers buying directly from farmers instead of through the more competitive auctions.
South Carolina produces primarily flue-cured tobacco, and it leans toward the bright leaf side, along with red Virginias. Though we still see field after field of deep green tobacco goodness when driving through the Horry County countryside, there's less than there was. But that isn't necessarily bad news. While exciting and frenetic tobacco auctions are a thing of the past, there's now an accurate, established supply chain, far more efficient than formerly, where farms grow specifically commissioned crops. There is now more quality control at each step in the chain, resulting in better quality tobacco and more consistency throughout.
People have wondered why Smokingpipes.com is located in a rather unassuming area off the East Coast. The general answer is, that's just the way things happened; that's how the cards fell. That said, there is something telling ex post facto about operating out of an area so rich in tobacco history and tradition — one that we, much like the farmers currently hard at work reaping the summer's harvest, hope to advance and cultivate. And it's reassuring to know we live in the very heart of tobacco country.
- "Go big or go home: How Horry County grows half the tobacco in South Carolina" | By Christian Boschult | Myrtle Beach Online
- "Tobacco" | By Eldred E. Prince, Jr. | South Carolina Encyclopedia