At this time of year, tobacco preserves Jim Owens' entwinement with the land. Potato grower spend the winter huddled in cold storage sheds, culling and grading. Dairymen, on December mornings, hack ice from the manure conveyor, banging until their fingers go numb and the machine sputters.
Jim Owens, like other tobacco farmers throughout southern Maryland during the cold months, finds a warm place to strip leaves off stalks.
He gathers his family and a hired hand inside a cinderblock appendage to one of the barns. There, in a room warmed by the woodstove and the pungent smell of tobacco, domesticated by the radio and the dog snuffling in the straw, Owens amasses his crop. Farmer and wife and son and hired hand pluck and bundle, pluck and bundle. They chat.Or they are quiet. Owens, a hearty, exuberant man, now and again talks to the dog, teasing, laughing. Mainly, he and his people pluck and bundle.
Slowly, tobacco upholsters the room: here, a mass of wilted plants; there, a heap of discarded stalks; along the walls, the completed bundles in shaggy piles, growing ever higher, filling the room with the warm earth smell of dead leaves.
Stripping, for the Maryland tobacco farmer, is a quiet interregnum, a crucial pause. Farm life follows the crop, unfolding organically, stage upon stage. In February and March the beds are seeded; from late May until early July the young tobacco plants are moved to the field; late in August the harvest begins. In a few hectic weeks, the plants are cut, speared and hung in the barn, tier upon tier, to cure -- not death, but a slow unliving.
By the following April or May, the tobacco no longer is anything resembling life; it is a commodity, bought at the warehouse, trucked away, crushed, processed and smoked. In between these two phases -- plant and object -- stripping comes. It is the passage from living tissue into merchandise.For the farmer, it is the beginning of the transformation of crop into cash.
Hanging in the barn, six to a stick, the tobacco plants become brittle as they dry. To handle them without their crumbling, the farmer must wait for damp weather to make the leaves supple -- to bring them "in order," as the tobacco men say. William Tatham, a transplanted Englishman who in 1800 published a treatise on tobacco, wrote that when the plant is in order, "it will discover an elastic capacity, stretching like leather, glowing with a kind of moist gloss, pearled with a kind of gummy powder; yet neither dry enough to break, nor sweaty enough to ferment."
Jim Owens puts it this way: "That leaf'll get in order just like a rag."
When the weather is right, Owens takes down 1,000 to 1,500 sticks of cured plants. He brings as many plants as he can strip that day into the cinderblock stripping house and leaves the rest in the barn, covered with plastic to keep the moisture in. Well covered, the plants will stay in order for several weeks, no matter what the weather.
Stripping is not hard work, like harvesting the plants and hanging them. You strip the stalks from the bottom up -- at least Jim Owens does -- and you bundle the leaves in groups of about 20. To secure a bundle, you take a good, long, plant leaf and wrap it around the bundle's base; then you tuck it through the middle of the massed leaves, bisecting the bundle into two lobes. If you're good, you can strip 100 sticks a day -- 600 plants -- more than 11,000 leaves -- around 125 pounds. Owens figures that on the 12 acres he devoted to tobacco this year, he grew 90,000 plants. A good winter's work.
"It's boring," says Jim Owens of tobacco stripping. "You just sit there, day after day, pulling off leaves. It's just like if you sat 'round the table, eating all day."
The tedious hard labor involved in growing Maryland tobacco puts farmers like Jim Owens in a kind of backwater with respect to the rest of American agriculture. Owens cannot be a corporate manager or factory foreman. His crop won't permit it.
Maryland tobacco is special. It can't be machine harvested and cured by artificial heat like the yellow-leafed tobacco of North Carolina -- what they call "flue-cured" tobacco. In North Carolina, machines pull off the leaves while the tobacco is still growing in the field: each portion of the plant is harvested as it matures.
Not here. The buyers want Maryland tobacco harvested whole, air-cured, stripped and bundled. If the leaf is severed from the plant too soon, or cured too quickly, something changes in the way the starches and sugars break down and flow into the stalk.
Then the properties that make Maryland tobacco unique and valuable are lost. The major cigarette companies put Maryland tobacco in their blends for its virtue of burning gradually. There also is something called "Maryland taste," which the experts can't quite define but which smokers seem to like. Especially in Switzerland. The Swiss working class craves the Maryland taste, and Swiss manufacturers produce "Maryland cigarettes," which cannot be so labeled unless they contain at least 50 percent Maryland tobacco.
So the winter-long chore of stripping will not change for Jim Owens. The bundles, or "hands," with their leafy tourniquets, may disappear, since the bundling has nothing to do with the Maryland taste and only makes more work, but stripping by hand will persist. And something seems proper in that. Something in the warmth and sociability of the stripping house, and the unthinking attentiveness of the task, seems to fit winter on the farm. There is something in the act of stripping, too, that makes Jim Owens' farm the kind of place it is, a place that has been worked. Here, every leaf passes through the farmer's hands, depositing its gummy stain.
These are the leaves of man.