Last week, when what's left of the tobacco markets opened across the Border Belt and the Eastern Belt of North Carolina, Van Leaird was an interested observer -- nothing more -- for the first time in his life.

This is the first year Leaird has planted no tobacco in his fields. It's also the first time in ages that he'll take a summer vacation with his wife, or sleep as late as 6 a.m.

It's not time to retire -- at 64 years old, he still feels too young. The only thing that's changing is the crop in his fields.

This season's tobacco crop is the first to be planted since Congress approved a $10.1 billion buyout of the Depression-era federal tobacco price support program last fall.

Some are sticking with the crop, or planting smaller amounts to see how the market reacts. Some, like Leaird, have gotten out altogether. For him, it's an end to the intensive summer labor that's traditional for tobacco farmers.

They'd put the crop in the ground each spring and began harvesting, or priming, in July -- suckering, topping and priming the tall plants in stifling heat, then manning the tobacco barns 24 hours a day for weeks to cure the crop.

Leaird, the son of a tenant farmer, recalled how schools would be delayed if too many families still had tobacco in the fields by late August, to allow the children to help pick the leaf.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "It's a lot of pleasure. It was an experience you can't get anywhere else."

He and his wife, Laura, have lifelong ties to tobacco, growing up on farms in Harnett County -- though neither ever smoked a cigarette. Laura Leaird remembers when her father would give her hot dogs to roast over the fire that kept the tobacco barns hot enough for curing.

In the past 10 or 15 years, the Leairds grew about 50 acres of tobacco on their farm in the Boone Trail community, about six miles northeast of Lillington.

This year, Van Leaird helped his wife put up 56 quarts of field peas. Instead of picking tobacco, they'll grow sweet potatoes, some wheat, corn and soybeans. He'll tackle her list of chores, and they'll visit their daughter, Kim, in Florida.

The Leairds are renting their eight barns to fellow Harnett farmer Danny McDonald. He has been working tobacco for about 40 years, since he was 10. This year, he planted 40 acres and signed a contract with Philip Morris, the nation's biggest tobacco company.

McDonald is using his buyout money to retire debt. He's not sure whether he'll plant tobacco again next year or plant more grains and add to his herd of 70 cattle -- it depends on whether this year's crop turns a profit.

Earlier this month, McDonald unloaded newly cured tobacco from the barns near Leaird's house, pulling the leaves from the barn and packing them in a baler with the help of seven other men.

Van Leaird wasn't one of them. He watched from the sidelines, wearing denim shorts, a neatly pressed plaid shirt and clean shoes.

It was nothing like the summer days of his youth, getting up before the sun, working in the fields by lamplight before the heat set in, waiting for the pleasure of a 9 a.m. break to drink a Pepsi and eat a Moon Pie in the shade.

"It was whatever you wanted to make it," Leaird said. "If you wanted to be jolly and happy about it, that was good."

Leaird, with hand-looped tobacco from his last crop in his office, grows sweet potatoes, soybeans and other crops and rents out his eight tobacco barns. Van Leaird, right, of Lillington, N.C. watches Danny McDonald bale tobacco. Leaird, who has farmed tobacco all his life, did not plant a crop this year.