Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Culture Of Tobacco

(For the Burlington Hawk-Eye.)

As was stated the other day in your columns, the raising of this crop is certainly worthy the attention of Western farmers at a time like the present, when the demand for produce generally is dull.  With the hope that they may prove serviceable to some of your many readers, I will proceed to give directions for raising and properly curing Tobacco, mostly taking the same from an article published some years ago in the American Agriculturist, and known from experience to be good.

As the plant is only cultivated for its leaves, the whole process of growing, curing and preparing for market requires attention and good management.  In scarcely any other crop does so much depend upon the skill and intelligence of the cultivator.  In no other crop is there more difference between a prime and an inferior article, and none in which the prime bears so small a proportion to the inferior grades.  It is believed that the average returns from large plantations may be more than doubled by skillful management.


The first business after procuring good seed is to start the young plants.  Seed beds may be prepared under glass or in the open air; the latter will answer in this climate, if prepared in time to make an early start, and is the usual mode practiced everywhere.

The place usually selected in Virginia, is some sunny spot in new land, sheltered and warm. – As soon as the frost is out of the ground in the spring, the leaves are raked off and roots are grubbed up.  The whole space is then covered with wood and brush several feet thick, and burned over.  This gives a good dressing of ashes and coal, which is to be worked well into the soil.  The ground is then laid off into beds four feet wide, raking and leveling off thoroughly, raising a little on dry land and more where it is moist.  A pipe bowl of seed will be enough for sixteen square yards of bed.  After sowing the seed, cover with brush to keep off frost.  A dressing of fine manure is of great service when the plants first appear, to quicken their growth.  As the success of the entire crop depends upon these plants, they should have careful attention, and be kept free from weeds.  When all danger from frosts is over, the brush is removed, and the plants well weeded and thoroughly cultivated, till ready to plant out in the field.  The essentials in this method are a warm soil, a seed bed rich and fine, and protection against frost.


The plants will usually be ready for this operation about the last of May or first of June.  They should be put out during or just after a shower, or if this cannot be obtained the bed should be soaked with water, and the plants covered with plenty of earth about their roots.

The best tobacco is grown upon rich light loamy land, such as is recently brought under cultivation.  It requires a warm, mild season, with clear, bright weather in the latter stages of its growth to be of the finest quality.


A clover fallow makes a good field for this crop.  The ground should be previously prepared by fall plowing, and cross-plowing and harrowing in the spring, so that it may be in fine tilth.   Lay it off in rows three, three and a half or four feet apart, running each way. – Every square thus made should be scraped with a hoe so as to form a hill.  In which a plant is to be set.  If the plant is destroyed by worms or drouth, it must immediately be replaced from the seed bed.

Cultivate similar to Indian Corn during the season, working the ground deeply in the early stages of its growth.  This will enable the roots to penetrate through the soil and feed from it.  Deep plowing and cultivation are also a safe guard against drouths.  Keep all weeds under well, and the better the tillage the better the crop, other things being equal.  No more ground should be planted than can be thoroughly taken care of.  As the season advances, care should be taken to cultivate only upon the surface for fear of injuring the roots.  These will completely occupy the soil by the first of August.


The plant is not grown for its seed, but for its eight or ten broad leaves.  So we must interfere with its natural growth, take away its flower stalk and small leaves, and force the strength of the plant into the parts most desired for market.  As the plants approach maturity they throw out upon the top a blossom bud called a button.  This must be taken off, with such of the small leaves as are not needed.  A shoot is also thrown out at the foot of every leaf stalk which ought to be carefully pinched off without injuring the large leaf.

The topping is best done by a measure.  If six inches of the top is to be removed, the topper takes a stick of that length and applies it to every plant.  Prune six inches and top to eight leaves, is a good average rule.  An unusually fine crop, in some rich spot may be allowed to mature ten or even twelve leaves.  If the plants are smaller, they should be allowed fewer leaves.  The crop should be wormed and suckered ad least once a week, children and young girls being engaged for that purpose, if other hands cannot be spared.  In some seasons the tobacco worm is very destructive, and constant vigilance is necessary to keep the crop from being totally destroyed.  Good management is of great importance at this time.


This process, in the slave States, is a very primitive one.  The plants, after being cut and hung upon sticks are frequently set in the fence corners and left there for weeks if the weather is dry.  They are then transferred in great haste and not by any means careful handling, to an open barn, where they are hung up with the outer row exposed to the weather, so that the whole is cured irregularly or not cured at all and has a mottled mildewed appearance, on the principle that the best way is the cheapest.  I will describe a different mode of management at this important state of the crop.  Some three months after the plants are set out, they begin to assume the spotted and yellowish appearance which indicates maturity.  A difficult part of the management now approaches where the closest attention is required.  A few day’s neglect now will cut down the profits.  To save a heavy crop requires industry and energy.  The most careful hands are selected for cutters, and the plants are cut with a knife near the ground, being allowed to lie in the sun for a few hours till they wilt.  Keep an account of the number of plants cut, so that each tobacco house may receive its exact compliment.  It is as easy to cut a houseful as half ful, and more than the house will hold should not be cut at once.  After the tobacco has fallen, string it upon sticks eight or ten feet long, and carry immediately to the barn in wagons.  Do not crowd the plants on the sticks, but arrange to admit uniform and gradual drying by artificial heat.  The proper disposition of the sticks in the barn, &c., is a matter to be acquired by experience.


The day after the plants are housed, the barn is heated to about one hundred degrees of the thermometer.  This must be done with a stove, properly arranged, and the thermometer must be constantly observed by the tender of the fire, to keep from getting too hot.  After being kept at this heat for thirty-six or forty-eight hours, the tops of the leaves will begin to curl.  Now the planter must take care, for if the fires are kept too hot, the aromatic oil passes off with the sap and smoke, and he has ha house full of an inferior article to be sold at a reduced price.  If his fire is too low, the tobacco takes a clammy sweat and the oil escapes.  There is more danger of the former evil.  The fires should be kept regular and steady, with a gradual increase of heat, in forty-eight house to 150° or 160°.  Keep about that temperature till the tobacco is dried and perfectly cured.  Well constructed barns and good heating apparatus is of great importance, and pays the planter well, though very seldom properly attended to.  The difference in price is apparent, when Connecticut Seed Leaf Tobacco, raised and cured as we have directed, as quoted at forty cents, wholesale; and a recent Louisville Journal, in opposing the proposed Federal tax upon the article, declares that much of the Kentucky tobacco does not bring more than three cents per pound.

As the proposed tax is by weight, regardless of quality, this would be an additional premium for good management, for the poor article pays as much tax as the best.

After the curing process is finished, stripping, pricing, &c., which may be known by a dry stem, the leaves may be stripped from the stock.  Damp winter weather is usually chosen to avoid breaking the leaves.  They should never be stripped till the main stem is perfectly dry.  Tobacco hanked too wet, cannot be dried and will soon spoil.  While stripping, assort into three parcels; first, the sound, whole, good colored for perfect wrappers; second, the very light yellow, with large holes and thick leaves for imperfect wrappers; last, the balance for fillers.  The imperfect will bring about half the price of the perfect, the filling about one fourth.

Each hank should contain about as many leaves as may be easily clasped with the thumb and fingers, the butts all placed even; these wound as near the end as possible with the binder.  The hanks should be carefully bundled in double rows, butts out and tips in, and lapping.  The bundles should be kept covered until the butts are dry, when they should be boxed for market.

The above directions are for growing tobacco for cigar manufacture; which is much the most profitable.  The commoner varieties would probably not pay, except where negro labor prevails.  Never attempt to cultivate more than can be properly taken care of.

– Published in the Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, April 12, 1862, p. 1

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