Driving Through Tobacco Country
South Carolina Tobacco Fields

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.

South Carolina Tobacco Fields

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.

South Carolina Tobacco Fields

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Comments

    • Jason Haddox on September 20, 2019
    • Lovely article and reflection. I used to live in Augusta and enjoyed visiting your shop when we'd come to Myrtle Beach in the summer. Thanks for reminding me (and perhaps others) of those pleasant days!

    • Andy Lowry on September 22, 2019
    • Thanks for this! I worked a tobacco harvest one year on a friend's farm in Kentucky, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. It's hard labor and not something that could be automated easily. The best part, by which I mean the most horrendous part, was the hanging of the laden stakes in the curing barn.

    • J.P. Hanna on September 22, 2019
    • Having moved from the Cleveland Ohio region to Southport NC (just a figurative stonesthrow from Smokingpipes headquarters) I am convinced that the Virginia’s just taste better now that they’re closer to “home”! The pungency of Carolina orange in an old tin of Ashton Pebblecut practically buzzes with vibrancy - even after years of rest. The deep reds in my C&D Bayou Morning Flake exhibit a rich malty darkness as if still connected to the very earth beneath my feet. And who but we lovers of the leaf can salivate just driving down a Carolina coastal country road past the broad waving green leaves, while the humidity conveys the rich scent of fresh tobacco through the window? Thanks Andrew for sharing your musings - and promoting my own!

    • Vladimir Pevzner on September 22, 2019
    • Thank you for interesting story.
      Do they need the workers to the plants?

    • Stan Kittrell on September 22, 2019
    • I grew up on a farm and cropped tobacco as a kid. We primed by hand putting the the leaves in the narrow "trucks" with burlap sides. When five or six "trucks" were filled up a tractor would take them to the barn where the ladies and high school girls would hand the tobacco to the loopers, three leaves at time. At the end of the day it was time to barn the tobacco which was misery in and of itself. The quality of the tobacco was better back then before stripping all the leaves and once and bulk curing.

    • Dave Sommer on September 23, 2019
    • Mornin'
      I wonder if Smokinpipes relizes how lucky they are? You guys have a "Mark Twain " in your company. Chuck really knows how to put words together to make pictures not needed!!!!! Thanks again for another grest narritive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!..

    • Cassie D on September 23, 2019
    • @Dave Sommer We are VERY fortunate to have Chuck here as a part of our team! So glad you're enjoying his writing as much as we are!

    • Terry Carpenter on September 23, 2019
    • Thanks for reminding me of the great days of tobacco. I grew up in Northeast Tennessee and worked tobacco every summer from the time I was about eight or nine until I graduated high school. We, of course, grew Burley, not Virginias, but I still recall fondly the experience. It was hard, hard work, but satisfying.

    • Scott Bower on September 23, 2019
    • Great article. I'm not far from Lancaster county Pa where plenty of tobacco is grown and still harvested by hand by the Amish. It's a beautiful site.

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