Serving Kenly, Selma, Smithfield, Princeton & Pine Level since 1973

Johnston farm still crops its tobacco by hand

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KENLY —Although the methods used for cropping flue-cured tobacco have changed dramatically over the years from the days of using mules to help in the harvesting process to modern computer-generated harvesters with a space-age look, several area farmers still prefer using a version of the old way to harvest their crop.

Will Boykin and Matthew Rhodes of Boykin-Rhodes Farms in the Stancil’s Chapel community northwest of Kenly provide just such an example.

Instead of relying on large, modern harvesters capable of removing leaves from plants on many rows at once, they’ve chosen to use human croppers, not unlike how it was done by most farmers more than 50 years ago.

The two men, who farm together and grow some 75-80 acres of tobacco annually, have their entire tobacco crop picked by hand and have been doing so for the past three or four years, according to Rhodes.

Rhodes said the farmers have tried several methods and picking by hand seems to work best for them.

“You do not see it as much, but we think cropping by hand gives us better quality and better yield,” said Rhodes. “By cropping by hand, we can leave the trash in the field and not have to spend money curing it and then throwing it away afterward. Picking by hand automatically means you end up with less foreign trash with the crop being cleaner.”

Another advantage of cropping by hand, he explained, is farmworkers can crop the leaves based on the ripeness of each individual stalk better than by going by each row.

Also, Rhodes said any plants that may have blown over cannot be cropped with a harvester without first standing the plants up.

Rhodes said the Boykin-Rhodes operation uses 18 croppers, most who have been working there for years, and said the workers can easily pick one or two barns per day — the equivalent of five to 10 acres, roughly 7,500 pounds.

“They know what they are doing,” said Rhodes. “Making three or four passes down the rows is all they usually need to crop all the leaves from each stalk, and that is about the same as can be done with a harvester.”

“One of the major factors to consider when cropping by hand is you do not have to worry about your machinery breaking down,” said Rhodes. “And the workers like it a lot better because of the steady hours.”

Rhodes said while his farm plans to continue cropping by hand, Boykin-Rhodes has a harvester available in case it’s needed.