Respect for tobacco

There is a chance you glimpsed at the title of this post and thought to yourself, “what in the actual hell? How could anyone respect something that has such a negative connotation affiliated with it?”

And these thoughts are warranted, assuming you’re not familiar with the rich heritage tobacco has in the province of Ontario.

I recently viewed a video that was shared to Twitter by Toby Barret, MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk, and currently the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. The video, titled The Back-Breaking Leaf, offers a glimpse into what tobacco growing and harvest was like when it first became an affluential crop in the province many years ago.

The video focuses on Delhi as its primary location, although Tillsonburg was also a hub for tobacco in the crop’s early stages (perhaps you’ve heard the song Tillsonburg by Stompin’ Tom Connors). The rural areas where tobacco took off when it first came to Ontario are referred to as the province’s Tobacco Belt, as tobacco was grown in fields rich with sand, most often in Norfolk County.

If you have 30 minutes to watch this video, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a documentary-style film, consisting of interviews with tobacco farmers and the workers who travelled to Delhi to work in tobacco during the harvest season, some even coming over from the States because the money was alluring.

This film was produced before harvesters were manufactured, meaning the leaves from the plant were harvested by hand. After leaves were picked (which required the workers to walk the entire length of the rows, bent over), they were transported to the second group of workers who hand-tied leaves to tobacco sticks that were placed in and hung in kilns, which cured the tobacco, giving it its signature golden-brown colour.

Men typically worked in the fields during harvest, hand-priming, suckering, and topping the tobacco plants, while the women typically tied the leaves to the sticks. The farmer’s wife was expected to assist with tying, but also cook three meals a day for all of the workers on her farm.

All of this was done, rain or shine, in extremely hot and humid temperatures. These men and women worked tirelessly to harvest their tobacco groups, a crop that essentially boosted the economy of regions in the Tobacco Belt and helped them flourish into what they are today.

These people worked damn hard, and the extent to which tobacco has influenced Ontario is truly remarkable.

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