Like any crop, the weather holds tobacco hostage. While infrequent, high wind can damage tobacco. Even rarer, but far more devastating, are hailstorms. My grandmother told me that one year after a hailstorm, Uncle Ken checked the field, and when he came back, he reported that around every stalk was a pile of shredded tobacco that looked like a little mound of coleslaw. The entire crop was ruined.
Tobacco barn fires were always a threat. A barn fire could destroy most of a season of hard work, leaving nothing to show for it but ashes.
Like any outdoor work, summer thunderstorms are a danger. I was twelve years old, working in the field with my grandfather and Jim Peeples, one of the farm workers, when we took shelter from an afternoon thunderstorm in a nearby tobacco barn. A tobacco barn has no windows, so we could not tell how severe or how close the storm was. Suddenly, there was a tremendous clap of thunder, as lightning struck near the barn. We each happened to be touching a piece of metal, and we got a shock from the lightning bolt. I was sitting with my leg touching one of the teeth of an old steel harrow that had been stored in the barn, and I felt a sharp electric tingle.
We were not hurt, but I have had a healthy respect for lightning since that day. It was a reminder that farming is the nation’s most dangerous occupation – equipment, wild livestock, and even Mother Nature can deliver injury or death in so many ways. The entire farm experience seems benign until it suddenly isn’t.
My Uncle Ken and my Grandfather Jap grew tobacco but were not dependent on it as so many were. They had a farm that varied from upland pastures of Bermuda grass to river bottoms with rich soil. They raised pigs, beef cattle, corn, wheat, watermelons, cantaloupes, and ran a dairy farm. I never worked full-time in tobacco, but I still remember working in the tobacco fields during the summer. For me it was not a matter of survival, but that didn’t make the day-to-day work any easier in hundred-degree heat beneath a scorching August sun.