When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont by Evan P. Bennett (review)
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When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont. By Evan P. Bennett. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. Pp. x, 152. $74.95 cloth)

Evan Bennett has given us a well-written and thoroughly researched essay on bright leaf tobacco culture in the Old Belt of North Carolina and Virginia since the Civil War. The volume examines family labor models that developed after emancipation, stabilized under the Federal Tobacco Program introduced in the 1930s, and faded with mechanization, out-migration, and the general retreat of tobacco culture since the 1970s.

Following the Civil War, freedpeople and white yeomen alike were attracted to rising tobacco prices and improving access to markets. But tobacco farming was very labor intensive, and every leaf was handled several times in the complex of tasks ending on the warehouse floor. With an eye ever on the bottom line, small farmers needed to reduce overhead any way they could. Perhaps family labor was not inevitable, as the author suggests, but it was cheap and readily available to small farmers. Spouses and children had to be housed, fed, and clothed anyway, and helping with the tobacco crop was expected as a contribution to the family’s living standard.

Family labor patterns persisted into the twentieth century. Old Belt families earned the respect of their communities through their work ethic and farming skills. Indeed, family labor often ranged to other tasks such as tending a vegetable garden and caring for animals. While sharecropping and tenancy increased regionwide, especially in the cotton country, the Old Belt tobacco region was an exception. By 1920, a solid majority of tobacco growers owned the farms they worked. And this distinction was not limited to whites. Black proprietorship reached 67 percent in some Old Belt counties.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the analysis of work routines common to bright tobacco culture in the early twentieth century. The author includes not only technical descriptions of the tasks but their social aspects as well. Another important asset is the [End Page 117] excellent summary of agrarian activism in the Old Belt. Hoping to reform a biased marketing system, Old Belt tobacco growers joined successively the Grange, the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the National Farmers’ Union. With a deft hand, Bennett guides the reader through this often-confusing series of organizations and explains their successes and failures.

In the chapter titled “Cooperation,” Bennett discusses the rise and fall of the Tri-State Tobacco Growers Cooperative, the most important reform movement in the tobacco country between the 1880s and the 1930s. Seeking to strengthen their inherently weak marketing position, reform-minded growers in the Carolinas and Virginia mounted a vigorous campaign to organize tobacco farmers as a counterweight to manufacturers and warehousemen. Supported by the Cooperative Extension Service and leading publications such as The Progressive Farmer, the Tri-State crossed boundaries of race and gender to an extent remarkable for the 1920s. While the Tri-State never achieved its full potential, it did raise tobacco prices for a few years.

The New Deal drew a bold line across the page of southern agriculture, dividing the history of bright tobacco into “before” and “after.” Acreage allotments helped to balance supply with demand, and price supports ensured that even mediocre farmers could profit from every leaf they could urge from their allotment. After World War II, mechanical and chemical technologies increased yields, but ever larger crops threatened to overwhelm the tobacco commodity program. Quota reductions fell hardest on small farmers, hastening their exit from the culture. As tobacco farming became more capital intensive, historic family labor patterns gave way to migrant labor. By the 1980s, growing health concerns and rising leaf imports weakened domestic producers further.

The final chapter, “Buyout,” discusses the endgame of the venerable tobacco commodity program in the 1990s and early 2000s. Consumer groups asked why government should continue to subsidize a commodity that posed a serious public-health hazard. Compromises such as the No-Net-Cost Act, which shifted program costs to growers [End Page 118] and manufacturers, were ultimately ineffective. The chapter offers a lively discussion of the...