Appalachia Gardening

Growing Baccer in Western North Carolina

Today’s guest post was written by Ed Ammons.

Burning the garden in spring of the year in appalachia

The Baccer Patch

The worst memories of my young life are of the ‘baccer patch’. It all started in the fall and winter when Daddy would pile up a huge pile of brush, let it dry and then burn it completely to the ground hoping the fire would kill all the fungi and weeds that could harm the new tobacco plants.

He would then build a frame around the bed using freshly peeled poplar poles. Next he and Mommy would rake the dirt inside free of any rocks, roots, or dirt clods. Then they would mix tobacco seeds with corn meal, to get the seeds to spread more evenly, and sow them in the bed. They would cover the seeds and corn meal mixture with the back of the rake and their hands so as not to cover them too deep. They covered the bed with a thin gauze cloth which was tacked around the sides to the pole frame. The cloth was thin enough to let in light, air and rain. If the weather looked like it might get too cold, they had an assortment of old quilts, blankets, and anything else that could be thrown across the frame to protect the tender plants.

When there wasn’t enough rain the plants had to be watered. Mommy would take her cupped hand and throw water on the plants so she could get just enough water in just the right place. One neighbor would give his tobacco plants an extra boost by watering them with tea, water that had been filtered down through a barrel of composted horse manure. More often than not Mommy and Daddy would end up having to buy some plants every year.

When Mommy and Daddy decided the new plants were big enough and the weather was warm enough, it was planting time. The field had to be plowed first. Daddy would hitch up the horse, when he had one, to a turning plow. The ground had to be just right. Too wet and it would dry out into clods the consistency of a used brick. Too dry and the plow would run only a couple of inches deep. To make it tougher parts of the field might be dry when other parts were wet.

Next he would use a float or a harrow to break up the rough ground left by the plow. A couple of years I remember him cutting down a small tree, hitching it behind the horse and dragging it around the field to smooth it even more. If he was lucky it wouldn’t come a hard rain and wash ruts across the freshly prepared field and force him to do it all over again. Or maybe the rain would wait until the plants were in the ground then come and wash everything away together.

Daddy never had much luck with horses or mules. He didn’t have money to buy young ones, so he ended up burying one horse and selling one that got too old to work. I don’t remember it, but he told me about an old blue mule he had that broke its neck skidding logs. I don’t know whether blue was the color of the mule or his name.

On years Daddy didn’t have a horse, he might borrow one from a neighbor. On years when a neighbor needed a horse, Daddy would loan his. Sometimes he would pay someone to come and plow. It wasn’t unusual in those times to see an old farmer with his horse or team fully harnessed dragging its singletree or their doubletree with a plow attached. The plow would be on its side so as not to wear out the point or plow up the road. The farmer would bring up the rear, strolling along at the horses’ plodding pace, occasionally turning his head aside to squirt a stream of brown ‘baccer juice; from his mouth. You could hear this combo long before you saw it. One neighbor had a horse that knew how much his owner loved to talk and would stop automatically whenever it passed someone along the way.

Looks like I’ve wandered away from the ‘baccer patch’. Anyway, as modern times approached and farmers were becoming mechanized, nobody was loaning their tractors. So Daddy did the best he could with what had. He bought a ”garden tractor” which had two big wheels under the engine with handles that extended back to the operator and held the throttle and direction controls. To crank it you had to wind a rope around a pulley, put the choke on and jerk with all your might. If you were lucky the thing might start after the 155th try. There were several attachments to be had but Daddy only had a plow and disc harrow. The plow wasn’t like its ”hillside turner” cousin that could be flipped over the end of the row and go back the other direction. This plow was stationery and you had to plow in circles with it like you do in the flatlands.


Pap never raised tobacco so I don’t have any first hand knowledge about growing tobacco. I have heard Pap describe how his mother started tomato seeds in the early spring. She did it almost exactly like Ed’s parents started their baccer seed.

Ed’s line: “Or maybe the rain would wait until the plants were in the ground then come and wash everything away together.” reminded me of the Poor Man song remember it? If you missed it you can go here to hear it.

I hope you enjoyed Ed’s baccer memories as much as I did.

Tipper

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    July 2, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    I grew up on a backer farm. We grew flue cured tobacco. The season began in February preparing the land and ended normally in November selling the last. It was very hard work but, it paid the bills. Some of my fondest memories involve working in baccer fields. Each week during the summer we would harvest the tobacco putting it in the curing barns. Neighbors helped neighbors. It took a large crew. Like many I left the farm and spent my career working in industry but have continued living in baccer country, I love it here. I’m 68 years old now and have enjoyed smoking cigarettes since I was 15. I’m in excellent health and take no meds. My theory is smoking relieves stress which is the real number one health problem.
    Thanks for your blog. God Bless You

  • Reply
    Alexis Mohr
    July 2, 2021 at 2:20 pm

    Sometimes when people talk about “the good old days” I think of stories like this one. And I remember, too, when my grandparents in Pennsylvania had a bad year with their huge vegetable garden, when it had to be watered by hand and the water had to be pumped by hand and carried to the garden. Things aren’t so bad today.

    Thanks for your memories.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    July 2, 2021 at 11:48 am

    Ed’s story will probably trigger my recurring nightmare about tobacco and tobacco fields!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 2, 2021 at 10:53 am

    You are right Mr. Ammons. The Tobacco Hornworm and the Tomato Hornworm are one and the same. They grow up to be giant moths. They come to our 4 o’clock flowers at night and can be watched under a red light. They fly away with white light. I leave them on the tomatoes now just because I enjoy seeing them. When they fly close by your head it is a sensation.

    As far as I know, no-one grew tobacco in the county where I grew up. But we were kinda aware that it was a yearlong enterprise. Farmers started way early but didn’t get the money until about Christmas. A story I heard growing up was about a car dealership in Lexington, KY. An elderly farmer in faded overalls showed up on the lot one December day. It was cold out and warm inside and he just looked like he didn’t have any money. So the salesmen had a disn about who would go. Finally, one volunteered and went out. He was not gone long till he headed back and the others said, “Yep, just a looker. Got sticker shock.” But they got the shock. That farmer bought two pickups, brand new ones and was going to pay cash. He jad just come from the tobacco sale barn.

    I still remember visiting with a family in SW Virginia that was grading tobacco in a bitterly cold concrete block room of the barn. There were three generations gathered around a table, sorting, stacking and talking while the wind blew in through the window opening with no window. I wish I had a picture of them. To those who understand, no words would be necessary to explain the meaning.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    July 2, 2021 at 10:44 am

    I was never around tobacco growing, but did witness a tobacco auction in north Florida in the early 1960s. I always assumed that both cotton and tobacco were southeastern crops. I was surprised to learn, on a business trip to Wisconsin many years later, that a prime cigar wrapper leaf was grown there. I imagine that crop is history by now. Then, on a trip to New Mexico, I learned about a place called “Little Dixie”, where some southern transplants once settled and grew cotton. I don’t think it caught on.

  • Reply
    JimK
    July 2, 2021 at 9:33 am

    Tobacco was a mainstay in our life. Everything revolved around working in it. As a child our 28 year old horse taught me to plow (which I still love following a horse though a cultivated field) .it gives you time to think. Without tobacco ,Christmas would have been pretty desolate. We continued raising it until the government support was ended in the 1980s. I enjoyed each aspect of it, but the warehouses sale in Mountain City TN was always the climax. We always got to eat out in a resturant that day.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Moore
    July 2, 2021 at 9:10 am

    As a child in the 70s in Southern Va I would tag along with my preacher father to visit his congregation. Memories of having to visit the farmers in the tobacco sheds whilst it cured are vivid. The scent most of all: musty yet surprisingly pleasant.

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    July 2, 2021 at 9:07 am

    I remember seeing the rectangular white squares on the mountains in my area, which were the tobacco seed beds. It was a sign of Spring that I have not seen in many, many years.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    July 2, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Folks didn’t raise tobacco where I grew up due to the lack of flat land. When I got married, I moved up north where I still didn’t see any tobacco being grown. My ex-husband loved to tell the story about what I said when I saw my first tobacco field after moving to Louisville. Well, from the highway it did look like cabbage plants…
    I used to have a tobacco base here on the farm until the government stopped private growing operations. I leased the base to someone and never helped with the production. It’s my wish to see all tobacco eradicated from the face of the earth.

  • Reply
    Jan
    July 2, 2021 at 8:31 am

    That was a “cut worm” Don. This story makes me sad but proud to be a child of the Appalachia. Our folks back then had a hard time making a life for their family but would never have asked our government for help! Sometime when I feel overwhelmed I think of my ancestors having to carry water from the spout, heat the water with wood they had chopped. Just imagine with a new baby or a sick elderly family member to attend to. No disposable diapers and no washing machine and no running hot water. Should remind us all that we come from tough independent people. Happy Independence Day!

  • Reply
    Alice Somich
    July 2, 2021 at 8:01 am

    Tipper, I so enjoy hearing about your Pap and Mom! Wow, they certainly worked hard. And you and your family work just as hard. I used to wonder what you do to fill your days. Not wondering any more. Boy you all work your hands to the bone. Canning, cooking, gardening, blogging, and on and on. I get tired just watching your YouTube space!!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 2, 2021 at 7:30 am

    My Grandparents had a Tobacco Allotment, In their area you could not grow tobacco unless you had an allotment that defined how much space you could plant. I don’t remember, if I ever knew, why folks could only grow tobacco in their alloted space, but it was an inforced regulation. My grandprents were no longer able to grow their allotment so thay leased it out to a neighbor to grow for them and they shared the profits.
    I remember that it was a lot of work to grow an allotment. I don’t know if they have anything like a Tobacco Allotment these days but my best guess would be no, they don’t. It’s probably all controled by the big cigarette manufactures these days!

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      July 2, 2021 at 11:00 am

      We has a ½ acre allotment. Every year when the crop was planted the County Agent or one of his lackeys would come and measure the field, draw it out on paper and take the data back to town to calculate. Since good tobacco land at a premium the “baccer” patch might not all in the same field or might have an irregular shape it, so ½ acres was hard to determine. Sometimes the agent would come back and make you cut down the overage. Daddy was an honest man so most years he would plant less than the allotment. I think the County Agent and his minions were “for sale” meaning for a price the calculation would be much more lenient. Corruption in government was rampant. Imagine that!

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    July 2, 2021 at 6:28 am

    I remember my Granddad’s “baccer crop”. I especially remember some kind of worm that would show up. Seems the would sting or bite but don’t remember for sure…I remember the smell of the “baccer barn” where the Nick Byers crop was cured.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      July 2, 2021 at 10:02 am

      The tobacco worms I encountered wouldn’t sting or bite but if you picked them up wrong they would spit green juice all over you. If you pick off carefully, drop them on the ground and step on them, they would practically explode. The tobacco worm is similar, if not exactly the same creature as the tomato hornworm.

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