Monday, August 10, 2020


They are southern crops with a long history, but still grown today. I live in Virginia and have worked for the Cooperative Extension Service. So do know a little bit about crops. Stay with me as I give you the bird’s eye view of crops and a little history.

Tobacco, primarily used for cigarettes and cigars, it was also used by our American Indians and grew here naturally, not exactly the same strain as imported tobacco, but still tobacco. (Our American Indians also sought out hemp, another native crop, and used it during their celebrations and spiritual encounters just as they used the tobacco. But cigarettes and cigars were a white man’s addiction.)

The tobacco crop was golden. It was like having a money tree in your backyard. It’s also labor intensive. Leaves are picked daily, and then they are bundled into sheaves. I don’t remember exactly how many leaves are bundled together.  Eight - ten?. But the last leaf ties all of them together. It was years ago when I visited a tobacco farm and watched several older black men tying freshly picked leaves together. I can still picture them working and laughing.

We’ve all known women who could carry on a conversation and knit at the speed of light. My mother’s mother was one of them. I can remember asking how she could watch TV or carry on a conversation and not be counting or looking at what she was doing. These older black men were doing the same thing. They would stand there chatting, grabbing leaves, and tying them without paying attention to what they were doing, but each bundle was perfect. I remember thinking who is going to do this when they die?

The tobacco barn was for drying the leaves. Think of a log cabin without the chinking. They string the tobacco sheaves on poles and the poles run the length of the barn. Layers and layer of poles run through these small open barns. Air flows through the barn and allows the tobacco to dry. Nothing has changed much in the last few hundred years. Except today there are huge metal buildings the tobacco companies own, and they store the sheaves in there with enormous fans running.

But what is changing is that tobacco is being used for more than just smoking. It’s showing up in hair care products, and in perfumes, especially in products made for men. Tobacco smells earthy. For the tobacco grower, it’s still a great cash crop. And the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service is there helping tobacco growers find places to sell their crops and researching alternative ways to use it.

Who stands and reads the ingredients on shampoo? Most of the ingredients we can’t begin to pronounce, but often tobacco is listed. Check what's in your shampoo and conditioner.

Cotton is another Southern crop and still found west of the Mississippi. It’s grown in the southern portion of Virginia. It requires a long growing season, so plenty of hormones are used to force it to ripen because our growing season is a bit short. That’s not a good thing for humans living near it, but we don’t have a boll weevil problem in Virginia. It was once labor intensive. And those bolls could cut the hands of those picking it.

An older friend had a gazillion scars on her hands from picking cotton as a little girl. She used to pick cotton by hand with her mother. Today, it’s done by machine. Thank goodness!

Cotton has a large, pretty, white flower that fades to a rosy red before dying. It’s unbelievably beautiful! It’s a big cup-like flower.

Soybeans is another southern crop. It’s happy in warm weather. Like green beans, it grows easily here.

Corn is another staple of the south. I can remember my father saying horse corn. That was corn left to dry in the fields. But it was the same yellow corn that we ate. Today, we have hybridized corn into sweet tender ears.

As many of you know, we’ve been fixing corn wrong for years. Today we microwave it, cut the bottom off, and slip out out of the the silk and green outer shuck. (I wish I knew this technique years ago! It’s so fast and the cob is clean as a whistle.)

I remember my mom pulling a bit of greenery from the corncob. I never do that anymore. I just feel it. As long as it’s not mushy on the tip, it’s okay!

Wheat is still a big crop. And triticale is a special type of wheat. It’s better for us. It’s a rye and wheat mix, but it looks like wheat. It’s showing up in crackers and all sorts of products, including bread and cereals.

Peanuts is another major crop in the South. It’s a legume and not a nut. Nuts grow on trees! Peanuts are a seasonal crop. Peanuts grow on annual plants. Pegs come from the flowers. The pegs touch the ground and the peanuts come from the pegs. Peanut plants look like green waterfalls. Around the end of September, the plants are pulled from the ground and allowed to sit in the sun to dry. The peanuts are then removed from the plant and put into a storage unit with plenty of air being blown into them. By the time we eat them, they are several months old. In fact, in the spring, we are eating the crop that was pulled last fall, and if you buy them in the grocery store, they are probably close to a year old.

The South was an agricultural region and still is. That’s what created the problems that led to the Civil War. Slavery was on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. But mostly in the South because that was where most of the agriculture was and they needed people to work the farms. Lee freed his slaves before the Civil War, and several Yankee generals still had their slaves after the war ended.

Wait a minute! I was taught that the Civil War was over slavery. Nope. Taxes.

My family was from Pennsylvania, and my father’s nanny was once a slave on that farm. His nanny was everything to him, and his family loved her. She originally had been my father’s grandmother’s nanny. My father grew up on a large farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Half the workers on that farm were once slaves, or the sons and daughters of slaves.

I can remember my grandmother telling me that her grandfather was the one to tell their slaves that they were now free. Most just looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. The younger men left, and a few returned, begging for their old jobs. But the vast majority stayed on the farm. My grandmother said there were people who mistreated their slaves just as there are those who mistreat a spouse, children, or dog. She said her family were responsible for the people on the farm and they took care of them.

I’m so grateful I had a family that respected all people, no matter what the color of their skin. But I’m also grateful they raised me in the country. I understand crops and farming. I know about dairy cows. These are handy skills when writing the Old West.

Farm machines have brought farming to a new high-tech level. But it still requires a plethora of manpower. Even places like the cotton gins hire quite a few people to run the gin.

Many farmers complain that they can’t find people to harvest crops. Want to spend a summer earning money and seeing the United States? Join a company that supplies farm workers. If you don’t know Spanish or you want to prefect your foreign language skill, you’ll soon learn as the vast majority of the workers are from Mexico, Central, or South America. Most fruits and vegetables are hand harvested. The workers go from one farm to the next. They start in the south and work their way northward harvesting the crops. From one end of the United States to the other, you will find these migrant farm workers. They harvest everything from lemons in the deep south to apples in the far north. Avocados, blueberries, cauliflower, celery, and everything else that is harvested by hand. Things that ripen at various rates, bruise easily, etc. are handpicked. Some tomatoes are handpicked and others are picked by machine. It depends on the type of tomatoes being grown. Machines can even sort the ripe tomatoes from the green ones.

Can you imagine when all these crops including wheat were hand sown and harvested by hand? Or milling your own flour? Our settlers in the West did all of it by hand. Can you imagine picking beans or peas and spreading them out on sheets to dry in the sun?

When I wrote the story, The Widow, you get to see daily life on a self-sufficient ranch. And the trouble two little boys can get into when no one is looking.


The Widow


The boys left their bat and ball on the porch as they came inside. A few moments later, both boys reappeared looking a little damp, but much cleaner. Ellen placed the lunhks on small kitchen towels and sent the boys onto the porch to eat. She joined them.

“Mama, look!” Will pointed to the far side of the house.

She looked and didn’t see anything. “What is it?”

Will got up and ran to the corner of the house. “Come see. It’s a bear.”

She stood and walked to where her son was. “Oh, no. It’s a baby!”

Ty joined them. “Oh! It is cute.”

Ellen didn’t have to wait long before she saw the mama bear appear. “Children, go inside right now and close all the windows.”

“But we want to see the bear.”

“Ty, don’t argue. Go in the house and do as you’re told.” She looked down at the morning’s shelled beans on the porch and debated if she would have the time to grab them.

It would be taking a chance, but she decided she was going to try. Her hands shook, as she grabbed the four corners of the largest bean covered sheet of ticking near her and then hurried into the house. She knew food would attract them. They wouldn’t get all of today’s pickings, but she knew they would eat what they found. They ignored the porch and headed for the garden.

Cold blood ran through Ellen's veins and her stomach felt like it was filled with a million shards of glass. She passed the one cloth to Ty and then grabbed the other. The third one she gave up and dumped the beans where they fell as she rushed to get into the house.

The bears were eating her bean plants. She had to do something. She stood there frozen and wondered. Would they think her porch was a smorgasbord? She had to do something. She didn’t want them harming the boys or doing more damage in the garden.

Nik would kill them. He’d take the gun and kill them. She didn’t have the heart to hurt a mother with her cub. She looked over the back door and spotted the rifle that Nik kept there. “Boys, stay away from the windows. I don’t want the bears coming here to eat…”

She didn’t want to say it and scare them. “Are all the windows closed?”

Will nodded as Tyler answered.

She looked at the rifle and where the bullets went. Joseph had showed her something one time about his gun, and she barely remembered; but at this moment, she knew she was shaking too much to even recall what he said.

“Please, don’t kill them, Mama.” Will had big tears in his eyes.

“I have no desire to hurt them, but they are hurting us by ruining our garden.”

“I don’t care. I hate the garden.” Ty made a face. “Let them eat everything.”

Ellen ignored the boy’s plea and stepped onto the porch. ‘Hold it steady and tight to your shoulder.’ She remembered the first time she fired Joseph’s gun and was knocked to the ground. She didn’t have time to waste.

She stepped onto the porch with the rifle and leaned her shoulder tight to the wall of the kitchen. Raising the gun, she aimed over the bears’ heads. She whispered, “Please run away.”

Tears clouded her eyes, and she could no longer see what she was doing. Fear gripped her. She squeezed the trigger and nothing happened. She remembered she needed to pull the other little lever back. She pulled the lever, and then lifted the gun to her shoulder one more time. Her stomach was tied in a tight knot. Taking a deep breath, she let it out. She saw the mama rise up on her hind legs and seemed to look right at Ellen. She couldn’t make a mistake. She squeezed, and the shot rang out as her shoulder slammed against the wall, sending pain down her arm. She cocked the rifle and sent the second shot into the air.

This time, the bears took off running. She fired one more time. And the bears vanished into the trees at the far end of the ranch. Her heart was thumping in her chest as she gasped for breath.

“Mama, are they gone? Ty asked.

Will stuck his head out the door. “Did you kill them?”

She gasped again before she answered. “No. They ran away. I was only trying to scare them.”

When her heart rate returned to something normal, she went back inside. “From now on, I don't want you out there without me.”

Ty plopped into a kitchen chair, stuck his elbows on the table, frowned, and put his chin in his hands. “Does that mean we can't have berries or go to the orchard?”

She ran her fingers through his hair. “I'm not certain. I will think about this tonight. Nik promised he would be home by tomorrow. But until he comes home, I don't want you going anyplace without me. I don't want a bear having one of you for dinner.”

“Why would a bear want us, if they eat vegetables?” Will asked.

“They also eat meat. But I think they prefer fish. But a mama bear is going to be protective of her baby just as I am protective of you. So even if they don't want to eat us, she might attack us to protect her cub.”

She wondered about the goat and her kid. She decided to take them into the barn tonight and leave the chickens locked up in the barn. The ponies would be easy to put in the barn. She didn't want to take chances. But she also wasn't certain what to do with the mule and Joseph's horse. Maybe she should bring them into the barn, too. But would they come to her if she called them?


  1. Your book THE WIDOW sounds wonderful. I enjoyed the post. My dad managed a cotton gin for many years before I was born and then when I was 8-10. In West Texas, cotton is still a popular crop.

  2. Watching them gin cotton is amazing. I was at the local gin when the cotton caught fire as it was being ginned. It's not uncommon, and they don't shut the gin down. They just keep pushing it through until it comes out and that's when they deal with the fire. If they stopped ginning, the equipment would catch fire. WOW! They just wait for it to fall from the last shoot onto concrete. Then they rake it and hose it down with water. It's quite a process! I love to watch them grading cotton. How do they line all those fibers up? I've tried playing with a cotton ball to see if I could it. Nope!


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