First it’s the lugs, then the cutters and last the tips — that’s the order a tobacco plant is harvested.

The first round of gathering tobacco begins with farmers cutting leaves at the bottom portion of the plant. The leaves from this round are referred to as the lugs. Next are the cutters in the middle, and the tips are at the top.

As for the tips, those are the highest quality, flavorful and full-of-nicotine leaves.

“Nicotine is synthesized through the roots, pushed up the plant and stored in the leaves,” said Matthew Inman, who worked as an assistant professor of agronomy and weed management at Clemson University this summer. “If you’ve got a washout and a lot of rain, they will be behind in nicotine.”

One of the university’s extension offices is located in Florence and is also an extension tobacco specialist. Throughout the tobacco farming season, one of his jobs is to answer farmers’ questions about diseases and issues that come up in tobacco fields.

“Tobacco growers, they know how to grow a crop,” Inman said. “I’m just here to give my unbiased research opinion.”

How it all happens

Tobacco is not seeded like other crops, Inman said.

It all starts in the greenhouse, usually in January or February.

The greenhouse can be an environment for disease, which Inman said he helps farmers with by visiting farms to see the issue in person.

And sometimes he collects samples to send to Clemson testing labs to check for diseases.

From there, the plants — only inches tall — are placed into the ground along the rows toward the end of April.

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Tobacco is transplanted in one of the Strickland Farms fields in April 2021. Tobacco is seeded in greenhouses at the beginning of the year and transplanted after the last frost. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

And as the tobacco grows, farmers spray them for bugs, cut flowers — also known as suckering — from the tops of the plants, and maintain the rows.

By the end of July or early August, it’s time to harvest.

Farmers typically harvest three times, but ideally four times, Inman said.

Ketchuptown farmer Donna Kay Strickland began harvesting their family’s tobacco mid-July.

On her family’s second day of gathering tobacco, she’s nonstop.

She jumps in the truck, pulling a long, live-bottom trailer that carries tobacco leaves from the field to the barns.

“It looks beautiful,” she said of the crop her husband, Thad, twin sons and daughter-in-law have worked on this year.

“Thank God. We’ve had a lot of rain on it. Overall, it looks really good this year.

“We owe it all to God.”

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Tobacco is transplanted in one of the Strickland Farms fields in April 2021. Tobacco is seeded in greenhouses at the beginning of the year and transplanted after the last frost. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

The family filled up four barns on their first day of gathering, which will take 8 to 10 days to cure.

With the help of loyal workers — including some who have worked with the family for decades — the operation is fast.

Thad Strickland and their son Kayson ride along the rows on the harvester, and as it fills up, they bring it to the trailers.

Then Donna Kay Strickland and her daughter-in-law Ashley drive the black diesel trucks about a mile back to the barns. Kayson’s twin Kylie works in another field spraying.

On their first day of gathering July 14, the Stricklands filled up four barns.

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Workers stack tobacco in boxes at Strickland Farms in July 2021. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

At the barns, the tobacco comes off the trailer and rolls onto a conveyor belt.

It trickles up the conveyor belt then evenly distributes as it drops into a box, which will then go into the barns to cure.

About five workers quickly stab through the boxes with thinner metal rods, pinning the boxes closed.

And when the box is full, a worker picks it up with a tractor. The box hangs from a chain and swings back and forth as it’s carried to the barn.

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Tobacco is loaded into a 10-box barn at Strickland Farms in July 2021. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

In between boxes, the workers listen to music, stand in front of a fan to cool off and clean up any tobacco leaves that fell on the ground.

“Everything we do is basically wide open,” Donna Kay Strickland said. “Kylie said growing up, my favorite words were, ‘Let’s go now.’”

The Stricklands’ biggest tobacco contract is with R.J. Reynolds. They farm fields from Ketchuptown to U.S. 378 near Pee Dee Highway to Loris and Mullins.

Donna Kay Strickland and her husband married in 1981 and have farmed year after year.

“This is all I’ve ever done,” she said. “Since 9th grade.”

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Donna Strickland collects the first harvest of lugs at Strickland Farms in July 2021. The second harvest is done about a week later is for the cutters. The final harvest is done about a week after the cutters is for the tops and to strip the stalks. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Reported issues this year

By mid-June, Inman said there had not been many reports of issues, but expected there would soon be calls about pests and diseases.

“When it’s quiet, that’s good,” he said.

In July and August, Inman reported that overall, it has been a good growing season.

“Tropical Storm Elsa brought a lot of rain and moderate wind in some areas,” he said in August.

“I did not hear of any widespread damage, aside from blown over plants in places. Any stress like this can cause the plant to ripen faster and growers have been faced with that issue. It creates challenges with management and harvesting.”

Inman added the high heat the area has experienced further stresses plants and can make the crop ripen quicker.

“Oftentimes the grower cannot harvest fast enough and the leaves will burn up,” he said.

“I am still optimistic and looking forward to seeing the end results.”


To read more stories from the Harvesting History special project by My Horry News, visit www.myhorrynews.com/harvesting_history.

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Tobacco is transplanted in one of the Strickland Farms fields in April 2021. Tobacco is seeded in greenhouses at the beginning of the year and transplanted after the last frost. It takes less than 120 days for the tobacco to reach maturity, be harvested, cured and taken to market where it is sold. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Reach Hannah at 843-488-7242 or follow her on Twitter @HannahSOskin.

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