That leafy crop made its way from farm fields and sheds to the downtown’s dozens of brick warehouses where it was processed and sold for chew or cigar wrap. Our neighborhoods still have the stately homes that were built by bankers and tobacco barons during tobacco’s golden era in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It wasn’t uncommon for students to be excused from class to harvest when a killing frost approached. Our annual festival is called Tobacco Heritage Days and even our school’s fight song references “Tobacco City”.
Along with my friends and family, we value the work ethic that we learned from tobacco. So it’s with interest that I’ve followed an effort by Human Rights Watch to ban all youth from working in tobacco fields. The recommendation comes from interviews with 140 children, most who work alongside their migrant farmworker parents during the summer and weekends on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
The report says three-fourths of the interviewed youth suffer from the symptoms of “acute nicotine poisoning” from handling tobacco plants. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, irritation and difficulty breathing.
I never knew such thing existed. Nausea and headaches? Sure, but I always blamed it on the heat. Loss of appetite has never been a problem for me, especially when my grandma was cooking dinner.
One 13-year-old in North Carolina, Elena, told Human Rights Watch: “I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant.”
Nonsense Elena. Tobacco plants are too brittle to use as a crutch.
But wait, nicotine is not the only danger. The report also cites accidents with sharp tools as common. The axes and spears used to harvest were sharp, but it taught me responsibility. I was more scared of the power-take-off than anything used for tobacco.
Human Rights Watch wants all minors banned from lifting a finger in a tobacco field. The lazy teenager in me wonders where these do-gooders were back in the 1980s when it might have meant more time at the city pool. The skeptical adult in me realizes there’s more at play here than tobacco.
Farm Bureau led an effort in 2012 to beat back a federal effort from OSHA to ban all types of youth farm labor. The Obama Administration vowed to shelve those plans after a flood of public outcry; Back to the drawing board for the nanny state.
Chipping away at youth labor in one segment of agriculture appears to be gaining steam. The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina has advised growers to not employ youth under 16 and should “be cautious” about those 16 and 17. Philip Morris International says it’s working to eliminate child labor for hazardous tasks on the thousands of farms it buys tobacco from.
I’ve never said that tobacco harvesting is not backbreaking and sometimes dangerous work, but our society seems to have lost its appetite for teaching kids about hard work and personal responsibility. I have no doubt that Congress will chew on this issue again. Leave it to some little-known advocacy group to target a controversial segment of agriculture that lacks a vocal constituency and is accustom to regulation. Once one crop is arbitrarily banned what’s to stop the domino effect?
Recent history should tell us that tobacco is the proverbial low-hanging fruit where societal engineering begins. As a kid I remember hearing my elders say that after the federal government had decimated the tobacco industry, it would move on to alcohol and then on to food. Cheeseburgers, ice cream, soda or whatever someone else thinks you shouldn’t be consuming, all in the name of saving us from ourselves. It all sounded sort of strange and scary to my young ears back then.
It doesn’t sound so far-fetched today…
In many ways, Casey Langan has spent much of his life working for farmers. What began as a childhood fascination with his grandpa’s herd of cows yielded him a career. Only this farm hand’s plow is usually a pen. Milking cows and working in the tobacco fields of his native Edgerton eventually gave way to reporting for a weekly farm newspaper, working for a farmer legislator and the Farm Bureau.