A Harvest of Memories

In my summer break as a student in 1975 I took a job in Canada. Looking back it was doing something I am not now proud of. Picking tobacco. How doing this squared with my convictions at the time I don’t remember. I do know that smoking and tobacco was not seen as negatively back then as it is nowadays. Humbling to think how much I am influenced by the current values in society. I am no prophet but wonder if refined sugar will go the way of tobacco in the future.

Whatever my scruples or lack thereof the pay seemed very good. An odd comparison that stuck in my mind was that if you worked hard you could earn the same in a month as a British MP earned then.

So I flew from the UK to Toronto at the end of July on a chartered plane. Was headed for south west Ontario where the ‘tobacco belt’ was. The climate and soil there suited the crop. A bonus about being in this area was my aunt, uncle and family lived not too far away so was able to see them on several occasions that summer. 

After a few days at my aunt’s I made my way to a warehouse in Tillsonburg where along with others met with a bunch of farmers. We were then designated to work at individual farms. 

Despite what appeared to me attractive pay the workforce seemed to be drawn mainly from UK students. Were told that Trinidadian sugar farmers also were employed who came during the off season. No idea why. Maybe it was the collective I was with or perhaps there were better farm jobs available to citizens.  

Also don’t know what the criteria for assignment to a particular farm was. In any case I ended up working for a Hungarian farmer along with 5 others from England and Northern Ireland. At this point maybe I should be relating some joke about ‘a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman in a tobacco field’ However I don’t have any jokes!

Our host and his family were welcoming and very kind. They had come to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Accommodation was basic. Bunks in a converted henhouse. Amenities included an outside tap and a shower in a greenhouse with water from an oil drum heated by the sun. We were not complaining as our stay was only for the 6 or so weeks of the harvest. Working, eating and sleeping would take up most of our time.

The spartan accommodation was more than made up for by an abundance of food. Huge cooked breakfasts. The family fussing if you didn’t eat 4 eggs. Meals later in the day included plentiful chicken provided courtesy of granny who wrang their necks in the yard. 

Farmhouse eating was supplemented by a regular delivery to the fields of coffee and baking. A welcome picnic break. Of course all this generous feeding had a motive, keep picking.

The work itself was intensive in usually hot, very humid conditions. As said there were 6 of us. When picking with the harvester machine 5 of us sat in low slung seats. Each sat over a furrow and so the machine was 5 rows of plants wide. The 6th person as driver sat high up in the middle of the 5 rows moving the machine slowly along the field. Needless to say the driving was the cushiest work. It’s coveted position everyone got a turn of. For the 5 picking as each plant came you took off the bottom 3 leaves quickly by hand and put them in a bucket. It would take about a week to take 3 leaves off all the plants. We then went round the crop again taking the next lowest 3 leaves. This time the tobacco would be stronger as less leaves on plant. And so on each week for the 6-7 weeks of harvest until no more leaves left. Each pick had stronger and stronger tobacco destined for mild or medium strength cigarettes, cigars etc. 

Another technique for strengthening the tobacco was to remove the flowers on the top of the plant (known as topping). I see from my very brief diary entries of the time that this was done quite frequently throughout the harvest. The season was from beginning of August to mid-Sept. so a potential problem was frost. To offset this small fires in oil drums were lit at night, scattered throughout the fields. This raised the temp. enough whenever there was a risk. Plants were also protected by pesticides and at least once a crop spraying plane came. 

Each day the deal was the same. Fill one of the barns (kilns) with leaves which were hung to dry before taken to market. It was the farmer who oversaw this operation and decided when barn was full. One barn full was the piece work for the day and for which we were paid. Some days the barns seemed to have a huge capacity. It was team work and a day’s work depended on how much collectively the 6 of us picked and not what we individually gathered. A possible source of tension. I think the attractive pay rate kept us Brits sufficiently motivated to each pull our weight. Once the farmer called it a day this would signal a welcome shower and a big meal.

The main issue in the fields was the danger of lightning. We were told it would easily home in on a large metal harvesting machine in a vast field of rain drenched leaves. When there was a thunderstorm you vacated the harvester and got out of the field quickly. Although we avoided lightning in the fields our converted henhouse was struck one night. Fortunately we had a lightning conductor but the bang lifted us clear out of our beds. 

The other occupational hazard was nicotine poisoning. Not from smoking or inhaling but from handling the leaves and the sap. It gave a skin rash / allergic reaction. Our farmer, no doubt keen that we would stay fit and keep picking, took us all for steroid injections at a hospital.

We occasionally got a break from work and one time in particular stands out. A few of us decided to walk along the country roads and hitch a ride to the beach. The farm wasn’t far from the north shores of Lake Erie. A pick up truck stopped and the driver said we were welcome to hop into the back. His only query was ‘did we mind cats?’ No problem we thought. Climbing over the tailboard there was indeed a cat. The thing was it was a big one, a cougar. Fortunately it was tethered but had a generous range of most of the back. Our lift was spent leaning into the corners staying out of reach of the animal. Memories are very selective as 46 years later I recall nothing about the beach visit, only the fear of sharing a ride with a large feline. 

As with any harvest eventually the crop was picked and our job was done. Time to move on. We Brits must have bonded as some of us then spent hard earned cash on a car trip down the east coast of the US to Miami and back. 

I leave you to pick your own memories by recommending a listen to Barbara Striesand singing The Way We Were