For 200 years, the family grew tobacco on this land. Then Everything started to change.
It's his own daughter who sells him out.
"You know," offers 12-year-old Rebecca Hawthorne a little slyly, "If you pay my dad, he'll actually bite the head off a tobacco worm." Rebecca is a tiny thing in brown braids and work clothes and is reaching into an enormous pile of lime-green tobacco leaves on the back of a tractor. She smiles a big magnolia dare.
As far as you can see, fields roll away in all directions, each covered in plants that could pass as 3-foot heads of romaine lettuce. A dirt road curves past a black, dormant field and ends at an old farmhouse sitting under oak trees too big around for even a large man to hug.
Rebecca and her snickering teen-age cousins Roberta Jo and Stacy have come to the family farm on this Saturday morning to dirty their nails and pull tobacco. Clearly, it's a sacrifice, and a decapitated tobacco worm seems a fair payment.
Shacks are dotted around the dark land the Hawthornes have farmed for two centuries. The shacks are curing barns where both the flue-cured and dark-fired tobacco grown on this Alberta farm are turned into the most profitable cash crop in Virginia.
Now, though, tobacco's prognosis is looking shaky. As a result, so are the family legacies of thousands of Virginia families like the Hawthornes.
In the past few years, tobacco farming has taken a series of well-publicized hits. Chief among them: the good news/bad news of declining consumer use in the United States; government quotas on how much tobacco can actually be grown; and increased competition from leaf farmers in other countries such as Brazil, which keeps leaf prices low.
In the last three years, the average Southside Virginia tobacco farmer has seen his gross income cleaved in half. According to a report by the Associated Press, more than 2,500 Virginia farmers stopped growing tobacco between 1992 and 1997.
With all that in mind, looking out over the eye-searing colors of this farm and at a sweet kid like Rebecca teasing her dad, you can't help but wonder: How long can these people possibly keep doing this?
Robert Hawthorne ignores Rebecca's dare to chomp into a tobacco worm, despite his reputation as the Chief Harasser of what he calls the younger generation mainly anyone younger than he is. (He's only 33.) He and his uncle Billy are busy hoisting up the first rack of tobacco leaves and sliding it deep into one of the depressingly cavernous curing barns that look like empty truck trailers. One down, 125 more to go before the leaves will be ready for the slow, steady heat that will cure them from green to aromatic brown. By lunchtime, Robert mentions, they want to have at the very least 18 racks loaded. Anything less puts them in the family Hall of Shame. Right now, it's not looking promising.
He looks out toward the field to see how his father and the Mexicans everyone at the farm calls them that are doing with the next tractor. Every few minutes they emerge from the rows with huge bouquets overhead and dump them onto the flat of the next tractor that will heave and squeak its way to Robert's platform. They have a way to go.
"OK," Robert says, suddenly snapping into the girls' game. He jumps down from the platform, pulls out a bright green, pointy-headed worm from the stack of leaves and eyeballs the critter to make sure he doesn't get bitten back. He holds up the victim as Uncle Billy shakes his head and keeps working.
"This is purely for the crude entertainment of the help," he announces. And amidst high, piercing shrieks and impressed applause, the deed is done.
Freakish? Sure. But it could be that this worm beheading will, in fact, pay off for Robert Hawthorne, a Lunenburg county attorney and gentleman farmer who claims he does law just so he can keep working the land.
He's counting on the power of family memories even repulsive ones to make at least one of these girls want to stay on this farm. Even when all the odds seem against them.
hen it comes to identity, very few things can beat tobacco in Virginia's psyche. Tobacco's got it all: history, economics, and the advantage of being grown in the postcard beauty of Virginia's 8.7 million acres of rural land. It's the crop that was grown by Native Americans, the one that brought Jamestown its economic boom, and for better and worse the one near the heart of plantation history in Virginia.
Oddly, our tobacco image lingers even though Virginia isn't a big tobacco producer at all. In fact, we grow less than 6 percent of the nation's tobacco crop, with Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina coming in as the true big hitters. Virginia actually grows a higher percentage of summer potatoes (7 percent of the national total). But understandably, spuds seem to lack a little zing when you're talking state identity.
Talk cash, though, and it's another story.
"We may grow more potatoes," points out Kevin Harding, an agricultural statistician with the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service, "but they only bring in $10.5 million in cash receipts. Tobacco, on the other hand, brings in $132 million."
Tobacco, then, remains the undisputed king in counties such as Brunswick and Lunenburg just south and west of Richmond where people like the Hawthornes farm. Acre for acre, according to Virginia Tech Magazine, nothing even comes close as a financial substitute. Even peanuts, our next favorite (and infinitely more innocuous) "state identity" crop, bring in only $214 per acre in operating income; flue-cured tobacco rakes in $1,212, or almost six times as much.
Of course, all this battles against the politically toxic background of 30 years' worth of surgeon general's warnings about tobacco. Why, the health-conscious ask, don't those farmers just grow something else?
"Tobacco has its problems," Harding admits. "But all the prices in other substitute crops have been depressed for years. It would be difficult to change, even if someone wanted to." He says that even soybeans, another heavy hitter, only generate a little more than half the money tobacco does.
That's why surgeon general be damned Virginia continues to wrestle with its conscience, its history, its pride and its wallet over tobacco and the fate of the tenacious families who farm it.
As it happens, in the Hawthornes' case, money has absolutely nothing to do with why they farm. No one in the Hawthorne family has to farm for economic reasons. The land is paid for. And they've been smart enough to diversify not necessarily in what they grow but in how they make an income they can count on.
Take the three heads of the farm right now. Robert, once voted most likely to succeed by his high school class, stepped into a very successful law practice with his father. Bob, his dad, is the county attorney for the Lunenburg County board of supervisors. And Billy, who earned advanced degrees in chemical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, spends his weekdays as an accounting and statistics professor at the College of William and Mary.
If you just take a quick roll call of most of the men and women who make up even the extended family, you'll find counselors, attorneys, people with Ph.D.s in physics, several lifelong educators and academics, and other highly accomplished professionals in a wide range of fields.
Still, every generation for the last 200 years has yielded a farmer to take over the family's farm. Who wants to break that streak? Not this generation even when you factor in that the work is backbreaking, that the economic outlook is poor and that the social stigma of tobacco outside of Southside, frankly, stinks like manure. None of that, it seems, beats the need to keep the family's traditional way of life.
"We farm because our family always has," Robert says. "But even more we do it because no one wants to be the last person in the family to raise tobacco on this land."
For all their efforts (and these are capital E efforts), the farm generates only enough income to cover expenses and the taxes. That alone would make most people wonder if the job could possibly be worth it at all.
"My income and Robert's income would definitely go up if we stopped farming, says Bob, the 56-year-old family patriarch. Bob is sitting in the Kenbridge law office that he and Robert own in a town that has a total of three traffic lights.
Bob has a stellar reputation with the county board of supervisors as a serious man who is, according to board member Sid Smythe, "honest, sincere, hardworking, intelligent and slow as hell."
To his delight, he is also widely admired for his creation of The List a highly coveted top-10 list of the people in Lunenburg County most willing to play pranks on or otherwise insult Bob Hawthorne. (To be included, publicly humiliating Bob is a plus. You know, stuff like figuring out how to make him bid five times too much for a truck radiator only to find out he just bought back his own broken one. Or leaving a life-size mock-up of an outhouse on his front lawn that says "legal advice" on one side and "Bob's office" on the other.)
"Yes, we have several rookies on the list now, hoping to move up," Bob deadpans as he slips the tattered list out of his shirt pocket. "We'll see how they do in time."
For a man who has spent an entire weekend hunched over pulling tobacco, he looks fairly relaxed. To understand what he takes on at the farm makes you wonder how he has time for humor at all.
Tobacco farming is a stew of intuition, science, faith, sheer grit and the ability to enlist as much free or cheap help as you can lay your hands on. It starts in April or May with 6-inch plants that look something like the little trays of impatiens you might buy at a local nursery. Those are planted, then fed and tended to keep insects and weeds off until sometime in July when, with some luck and the right amount of rain, you'll have shoulder-high plants saluting you in the scorching sun. By then it's time to lop off the pink tubular flowers that come up because the leaves are your friends, not the pretty blooms. In August, pulling begins an act that involves not only three Mexican seasonal workers, but also family and friends who owe you favors and don't mind risking the nicotine poisoning that some people get from handling wet leaves; this involves nausea, vomiting and a general desire for death.
Since tobacco ripens the way a glass of water fills up, the crop has to be pulled in stages, bottom leaves in the early weeks, top leaves in the final weeks. Then there's the curing process: adding heat, watching for color, guarding from too much moisture (mold) or two little (brittleness), and smelling constantly, instinctively, for the dangerous gases emitted by the plants that can ignite an entire barn in a few minutes.
And then there are the endless business decisions: Do we contract with a big tobacco company this year, or will that give them too much power over the price of the leaves? Should we try a new curing method to reduce carcinogens? Spring for a new tractor? Train the seasonal workers in additional tasks to make the employees more cost-effective?
Why, why, why do this if a cushy office job awaits you elsewhere?
One reason might be related to butternut-squash casserole. No matter how tough the work gets, there is an attitude among the Hawthornes of a family party. Lunchtime is the hands-down favorite time during pulling season, for instance. The women who are not pulling prepare casseroles, turkey, cranberry dressing, rolls a feast that everyone enjoys on a makeshift collection of foldout tables. Between bites, Robert makes guilt-trip cracks about who needs to help more in the pulling. There is the occasional joke about Uncle Billy insisting on sleeping outside on a chaise longue at night.
"There are plenty, plenty of beds in this house, Uncle Billy," insists his niece Stacy.
Later, the girls though far too old for playgrounds congregate outside and swing anyway. Several of the men throw themselves on the grass for a snooze.
It's a family party, a time to joke, catch up on what's going on, work and complain together, ignore each other's faults (OK maybe point them out mercilessly), and partake of Motrin. In short, it's a way of building family unity around shared work as foreign a concept to today's Richmonders as the farmland of "Green Acres" seemed to Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Still, tradition and pig-headedness are only a couple of steps apart. And in recent years the issue of letting go of tobacco farming has started to loom.
arlier this year, the Hawthornes held a huge family meeting to see who still wanted to farm and who could be counted on to do it. No one will say much about it other than it was a "difficult and sometimes painful" meeting.
In some ways, the meeting was seven years in the making. In March 1994, Bob and Bill's younger brother 42-year-old Tommy Hawthorne was killed in a car accident. He was the second brother they buried. The first, John, died of leukemia in his late teens.
Tommy had been the dyed-in-the wool farmer, absolutely beloved in his community, and the keystone figure to the farm. He left behind not only a wife and three young children, but also a canyon of missing information about how to run a farm that had been in the family since before the Civil War.
"I thought I was out of it," recalls Bill, who had been working off the farm for more than 30 years when his brother died. He had been certain that farming would not be in his future. "Even Bob was getting ready to devote himself just to law," he recalls. "I was sure Tommy and John were going to be the farmers. But there were circumstances" he says this straightforwardly "a wife and three little girls. Somebody had to come and run the farm."
Tommy's death seemed to be the marble that dashed the pile. Bill, Bob and Robert stepped up to the farmwork and onto a huge learning curve, one that included accidentally burning down a curing barn and getting a crash course in everything from running the books to figuring out how to make the best use of the hired laborers.
"Before that, we hadn't burned a barn in 75 years," Bill says. "We had to learn it all."
Seven years and lots of experience later, it was time to put the question to everyone: Who's in?
Among those who opted out was Sadie the only sister to Bill, Bob, Tommy and John. She decided to focus on her job as a counselor in a private prison and to keep brood cows instead of being central to the tobacco farm.
"I just don't feel the calling anymore," she says sadly of her first year in "retirement." "My brother Tommy and I were 14 months apart. We played in the tractors together. We did everything together growing up. Tommy isn't here, and he won't ever be here. For my brothers and my nephew, they feel closer to him doing the tobacco. But I had to let go of that. I love my family, but I can find other ways to be with them."
Sadie's departure wasn't sacrilege, though. "Members of the family have always been able to choose whether to be more or less involved in the farm," explains Laura Hawthorne, Robert's sister who considers herself very marginally involved. Living in Charlottesville, she commutes to Richmond to work in the provost's office at Virginia Commonwealth University. Still, her fondest memories are of her Aunt Sadie standing high up in the dark curing barn calling out math facts to her as she etched them with a stick in the dirt floor.
"We've always been tolerant and lucky that way, and lucky that someone's always wanted to do it," she says. "The changes Tommy's death especially was a huge change in the dynamic. It took us all a few years of shock to figure it out. And so we came together to have a chance to talk and have a chance to make a different decision about where each of us wanted to go. We wanted to be intentional."
Like Sadie, farming is not in Laura's plan, either, she admits. She is thankful that her brother Robert has always been so naturally and fiercely drawn to the land. "He's a blessing for me. His passion has helped because I haven't had to make a difficult choice that would impact my life in Charlottesville."
For now, the farm and its struggling democracy continue. Bob handles many of the major decisions, such as their recent decision to contract with Philip Morris a risky move with a notoriously hardball player. Bill oversees the curing process. And Robert lies somewhere in between, offering advice and opinion where he can squeeze it in. "I'm strictly the midstrata management," he laments.
For all of these massive changes, responsibilities and decisions, the mood for the Hawthornes especially when they are pulling tobacco is a light one. Sure, the work is, flatly, awful. But they seem most in their element in each other's company, and even the exhaustion doesn't seem to dampen the feel of a big family reunion. There seems no thought, for now, of this being the last generation on the farm.
"I can't go and run a marathon," Billy concedes. "But there are lots of old farmers. I have endurance. And endurance is what it takes to run a farm."
Endurance and, maybe, new blood.
Roberta-Jo, the 13-year-old daughter of Tommy, was only 6 when her father died. All the memories she has of him, she says, are on the farm. Today she is a lanky blonde dressed in overalls and a baseball cap. She makes it clear she has a sharp sense of what's at stake.
It's true, she says, that her interests are wide, maybe leaning toward writing or education like other women in the family. But farming is a big part of her too, she says.
"At the end of the day, you're tired, not talking, just doing something you're proud to do. I don't know if my family expects me to come back," she says tentatively. "I don't know if I'll physically even be able to do this work. But, I think I'm probably too stubborn not to."
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