On a humid and cloudy Friday morning, fourth-generation tobacco farmer Matthew Brown, 33, watched a rust-colored combine harvest the top leaves of one of his tobacco fields off U.S. Highway 701 in Conway.
The combine delivered its load into a long trailer and a white pickup truck hauled the trailer off to Brown’s farm where the leaves were packed in metal boxes and stored in heated metal barns to cure. They’ll be taken to buyer R.J. Reynolds’ warehouse in Mullins after about 10 day of curing.
“It’s a hard way to make a living; it’s a lot of time and money invested in it to make a crop,” said Brown, who produced 480,000 pounds of tobacco on 240 acres last year. “Acreage has gone down in Horry County. There’s a lot less farmers too. I don’t know how many of us is left in Horry, might be 25 or 30.”
This was a global market. It was an international economic force.
Walter Hill, Horry County Museum director
August is tobacco season, when the crops planted in the spring are ready for harvest. Trailers like Brown’s can be seen all over the roads in northern Horry County from Loris to Aynor, leaving a trail of tobacco leaves wherever they go.
Horry County, due in part to its size, is the largest tobacco producer in South Carolina, growing 6,600 acres of the state’s 13,000 acres of tobacco.
“This was a global market,” Hill said. “You had buyers from big cities, especially in North Carolina, to buy tobacco here that was going back up there to be turned into tobacco products that were sold around the world. It was an international economic force.”
Communities such as Aynor and Conway developed around the burgeoning tobacco industry in the 1880s and 1890s, said Horry County Museum Director Walter Hill.
But within the last 20 years, fewer smokers, more competition from growers overseas, and the end of the allotment program have caused the industry to shrink.
“You used to have an allotment that was government-regulated; they’d tell you how much you could plant,” said Brown. “Now you can grow all you want, but it’s not wise to. You just grow what you need to fulfill your contracts with.”
The allotment program was meant to ensure that tobacco farmers would not produce more crops than the market demanded, said William Hardee III, the Clemson University agronomy agent for Horry and Marion counties.
Once you’re raised on a tobacco farm, you’re always one at heart. That’s just the way it is.
Daron Lambert, history farm volunteer
That all came to an end in 2004 when the federal government began paying farmers a certain amount of money per allotment, although farmers could continue to grow tobacco even after taking the money. Some chose to reinvest their payments.
“It was getting to a point where it was go big or go home,” Hardee said. “Farmers had to increase their acreage to account for the rising cost of production and changes in the market or quit, and many did the latter.”
South Carolina boasted 51,000 acres of tobacco in 1990, said Hardee, but that number has dwindled to only 13,000 acres today.
Although tobacco is by no means the largest crop by acreage, it’s a reliable cash crop at an average of $1.95 per pound. Horry County’s crop is worth $24 million, according to Hardee.
By comparison, Soybeans take up almost six times the land at 38,300 acres. But the crop is worth little more than $11 million.
“It’s still very important to many of the farmers in our area,” Hardee said. “Tobacco isn’t the staple crop that it once was, but many growers say that they can still depend on it to help their bottom line year in and year out, something that can’t always be said for the other row crops grown locally.”
Brown said his family has made a living off tobacco for generations but he’s not sure if the generation after him will continue farming it.
But the legacy of tobacco’s heyday remains alive through the memory of old farmers.
Matthew Brown’s father, Danny Brown, remembers working on the family’s tobacco farm by the time he was 7 years old.
“It’s changed greatly because it was harvested by hand,” said Danny Brown. “It was fun to me, and if you could help a neighbor, you made some money.”
At the L. W. Paul Living History Farm’s annual Tobacco Heritage Festival in Conway, the general public has a chance to witness what life on a farm was like in the 1950s.
The farm grows a tobacco crop, courtesy of the Browns.
Donkeys pull wooden sleds down the rows of tobacco while volunteers snap off the leaves by hand. Women tie the leaves to sticks used for hanging the tobacco in the large wooden curing barns.
Former farmers are there to provide an explanation of the process to visitors.
Daron Lambert, a volunteer at the farm, spoke at length about the curing process that converts the tobacco’s starch to sugar and changes the leaves’ color from green to golden-yellow.
Lambert isn’t a tobacco farmer but was raised on a tobacco farm.
“Once you’re raised on a tobacco farm, you’re always one at heart,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”