By: Bryant Spivey, Johnston County Extension Director
Several years ago, I visited the Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, NC. At this site, you can view the original home, farm, and tobacco processing buildings that Washington Duke first used to produce and process tobacco. His sons later founded The American Tobacco Company, the world’s largest tobacco company. This company modernized the production of cigarettes and built power plants to operate their equipment. Ultimately, the efforts of Duke and his descendants led to businesses and institutions that bear the family name today like Duke Energy, Duke Hospital, Duke University, and more. The “American Tobacco” name still lives on today in the company British American Tobacco and its subsidiary Reynolds American, Inc.
At the Duke Homestead, there is a small museum which includes a brief film and several exhibits about tobacco production in that era and the changes that occurred in tobacco manufacturing. This site tells the story of why and how tobacco is so important to the state of North Carolina, and it is a great place to visit and learn about our history. At the museum, there was an exhibit with a mechanical farmer (a Disney-like animatronics figure) that is telling the story of how much work it is to grow and produce a crop of tobacco. He calls it, “the thirteen-month crop.”
Let me be clear, this farmer, clad in his bib overalls is not a good representation of our farmers today, but his point about a thirteen-month crop is still timely and valid. Not only with tobacco but with many of our crops today, farmers plan for years in advance for the crop that will be grown in a given year. One simple example is crop rotation. Most of our crops perform best when they are produced in a cycle with other crops. The principle is that by planting different crops in a given field the farmer manages pathogens, weeds, nematodes, and insects that would otherwise be damaging to the crops produced.
For example, tobacco in our area is affected by diseases like black shank (Phytopthora parasitica var. nicotianae) and Granville wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum) and these pathogens survive in the soil. However, soybeans and most other crops are not affected by these pathogens. Therefore, by planting grain crops intermittently with tobacco crops, farmers can reduce the levels of these pathogens in the soil.
With respect to weeds, the crops we grow have the ability to compete differently, varied tillage practices are possible in different crops, and herbicides with different modes of action are available. For instance, a tall crop like corn is very competitive with weeds because it grows quickly and can shade out small weeds. In addition, farmers have access to many herbicides for corn especially when compared to crops like tobacco and sweet potato. To the contrary, tillage is usually minimal in corn but very common and necessary in tobacco and sweet potato. Tillage can be a very effective weed management tool. So, farmers plan for years in advance to grow crops that will minimize pests and pathogens in the crops they produce thereby increasing the odds of success.
Perhaps the crop that requires the most management and planning for years in advance in our area is sweet potato. Sweet potato is propagated vegetatively by saving seed (roots), growing sprouts in a bed, and then planting the cut sprouts. The seed stock in North Carolina is very carefully controlled to manage virus in the seed stock. Most potato fields that are to be harvested for market are produced from plants produced from second and third generation seed roots. So, it takes years just to produce the roots that will produce the plants for the crop. Also, after digging sweet potatoes are stored for up to 12 months on the farm. So you can see that it does take years and months of planning and preparation for farmers to grow a crop.
When the farmer at the Duke Homestead spoke of a thirteen-month crop, he was saying that growing tobacco or any other crop is very hard work, and most people realize that this is true. However, I find that many people also think that at least farmers get to take it easy and relax after the crop is harvested in the fall until the time that the next crop is planted. I will admit that I remember a time when this was more the case, and that even now farmers do not push as hard in December and January as they do in May and June. However, growing crops today is a year-round profession and farmers, managers, and workers are very busy even in the winter months.
Today’s farmers are highly trained and are certified, inspected, and audited more than at any time in the past. Farmers spend the winter months completing required training to keep all of these certifications up to date. You may ask, “Who is requiring this training?” In some cases, it is required to purchase certain products and in other cases it is required to sell the products that are produced on the farm. Much of the training centers around meeting food safety regulations from USDA or food processors. A portion of many of our commodities including grain, cotton, meat products, tobacco, and even vegetable crops are marketed overseas. Countries in Europe insist on programs like Good Agricultural Practices, Global Good Agricultural Practices, sustainability initiatives, and more. The markets in other countries are key to demand and profitability for many of the agricultural products that we produce, and so, farmers work very hard to comply. With all of the inspections, audits, and regulations some farm operations have staff for which this is a significant portion of their responsibilities. For consumers here, it means that we enjoy the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.
In addition to training, local farmers also use this time of the year to address make many business deals including land rental, business financing, retooling and updating equipment, working on farm drainage, and more. So, at the end of January 2018 some may say that we have completed the figurative “thirteen-month crop” of 2017. However, many farmers are still marketing grain and cotton that was produced in 2017 and most sweet potato farmers have product in storage waiting to be packed and sold. So, is it a thirteen-month crop? I will let you decide but I would argue that the period of time to produce a crop with planning, production, and marketing is much longer than that. It is a multi-year process with one crop year waxing and waning in a never-ending cycle.