WILSON COUNTY, N.C. — The modern farmer and the process of harvesting tobacco — North Carolina’s cash crop of old — have both evolved thanks to advances in technology and machinery.
While the intense heat this summer feels brutal, North Carolina’s tobacco fields are loving it and farmers say they need a good harvest after a hard season last year.
“Generally, as a whole, we've got a nice crop this year, which is a good change,” Brooks Barnes, a farmer in Wilson County who’s been around tobacco his entire life, said. “Last year was really rough. It was really dry for a long time.”
Barnes Farms is a 3,000-acre operation, 340 of which are tobacco. It’s a nine-day process as tobacco cuttings are harvested in the field, packed into boxes and then cured until they reach the golden leaf standard.
“When you cure tobacco, it's all about the heat and the relative humidity inside the barn, and it's kind of one of those things that it takes time to learn,” Barnes said. “When I was a little boy, I used to follow my dad around behind these barns, walked right behind him. And that's kind of how I learned.”
According to the state Department of Agriculture, North Carolina still leads the country in tobacco production. And Wilson, North Carolina, used to be known as the "world’s largest tobacco market."
“Even 10 years ago, the profit we had an acre versus what we have today, our inputs — how far I have to stick my neck out to make a living, the amount of capital it takes to make the wheel turn on this merry-go-round every day — I miss those days,” Barnes said.
He said farming is about handling curveballs as they come, whether it’s in the form of Mother Nature or a mechanical breakdown.
“You know, not every year is a home run, not every year is a is a complete failure, but you have some of both,” Barnes said. “You just got to average it all out and hope you win more than you lose.”