This Week's Poll


Seeing the day through
Working in the fields built character

Workers transplant tobacco plants into the field. -Photo: Submitted

By Jeffry Boatright

Agriculture has always been the economic cornerstone of North Florida. It continues to drive our economy, and probably always will. Every crop is, in a way, a field of dreams. The past few decades, however, have brought immense changes to the social impact that agriculture has on our North Florida communities.

The whole landscape of agriculture in our area has certainly changed. Row crops are grown under pivot irrigation systems and ground is prepared with gigantic tractors that are equipped with global positioning systems.

The number of tobacco farmers, however, has dwindled to just a few, and producing watermelons has evolved into a complex industry where fewer farmers produce extensively more acres of the perishable crop. While hay production has seemingly increased, advanced machinery has reduced the number of workers required for baling hay.

Agriculture, like other businesses, has evolved into a complex industry of high-stakes investment and efficiency-based practices. As a result, the methods of the past have been replaced with modern techniques. Certainly, the farmer is not to blame because it is a business, and in business, you are either competitive or you’re left behind.
Because of this evolution in agriculture, a whole generation will unfortunately not fully understand the impact that agriculture has on our community because they simply will never experience the challenges and joys of working in the fields.

Only a generation ago, our area’s youth instinctively hired on with nearby farms for the summer. The annual ritual enabled young people to earn their own money, which was used to purchase school clothes, along with other necessities for the year. Others, with little or no reluctance, contributed the money they earned to help their families with living expenses.

Naturally, a number of youngsters spent a portion of their hard-earned dollars on a few luxuries that they might not have otherwise enjoyed. Of course, some of the more frugal adolescents saved their dollars for that first vehicle while others saved for college, or perhaps an eventual down payment on a piece of land of their own.

A summer job in the tobacco, watermelon, or hay fields certainly had its financial advantage for the youth, but these difficult jobs were laden with additional benefits that workers often didn’t recognize until much later in life.

“Working in watermelons as a teenager was honestly some the best times of my life for a lot of different reasons,” Dr. Matthew Vann explained. “Certainly, having some money in my pocket was a good feeling but as I get older, I realize it was about more than the paycheck. That was the first job where I worked with my peers, and it motivated me to be the hardest and most efficient worker in the field.”

Vann, who later pursued degrees in agriculture, is now an associate professor at North Carolina State University, and dedicates much of his research to tobacco production. The North Florida native’s tenacity is, in part, credited to after school and summer farm jobs.

“As I get older I also think back to the memories made on those long, hot days. I find myself laughing about things that happened 15-20 years ago, and it makes me happy,” Vann concluded.

Those who endeavored on the farms during their formative years will agree with Vann’s assertion that wonderful memories were made, even in some of the most intolerable conditions. The work was difficult, the climate unforgiving and the hours were long, but those summer farm jobs were, in a sense, a rite of passage.

Bobby Green is quick to agree with Vann’s assertion, and has fond memories of his own formative years while working in tobacco. The 82-year-old Suwannee County resident recalls the summer of 1945, when he was first gainfully employed in a tobacco field. “That was the year my brother came home from the service, and we were gathering tobacco at Evie Barrington’s place,” Green recalled. “I made 50 cents a day that year, he added with a chuckle.”

Green’s wages increased to a whole dollar a day the following year, and farm wages steadily increased each subsequent year. Like Vann, Green maintains the work in the fields provided him with many wonderful memories. It is easy to see that Green, who is now retired from the City of Live Oak’s maintenance department, was also quite competitive while cropping tobacco.

The tobacco fields, like the hay fields and watermelon fields, provided a place for adolescents to prove themselves capable. What’s more, the laborious work instilled integrity, persistence, and pride in every worker who would see the day through. Some of the older workers followed the tobacco harvest up the country and even into Canada, where they could earn considerably more money.

According to Green, many of those days were rather long. “Some mornings we would start unloading a barn at 4:30 a.m., before eating breakfast. After breakfast, we would crop tobacco until lunch and then keep cropping after lunch. Many days, we wouldn’t finish hanging the tobacco until after dark,” Green explained.

Green certainly didn’t mind the long hours and hard work. While it put money in his pocket, it also afforded him the opportunity to establish life-long friendships. Those long, humid, difficult days that developed remarkable character also provided him with unmatched camaraderie. It was an experience that Green will forever cherish.

For generations, boys and girls shared similar experiences from their summer jobs and could better relate to one another as peers in the classrooms. Unlikely friendships were formed, and as a result, everyone seemed to fit in.
While the farm owners had expectations of their workers, peer pressure insured that the young workers quickly learned to carry their fair share of the load and that workers of all ages maintained the expected pace. Some found humility when it was needed and others were toughened up as needed.

Perhaps these were key elements that shaped generations of youth in North Florida. An unparalleled work ethic was instilled into young men and women throughout the region, and they ultimately carried that work ethic into their chosen fields of employment.

Every generation of youth in America has indeed endured various challenges. Some challenges are broad and general while others present exclusive tests for that generation. While the generations of Bobby Green and Matthew Vann might admit the work was challenging, they will surely agree that today’s generation of youth is challenged by the absence of those tobacco fields and small watermelon fields. They were indeed the true fields of dreams.

This photo, which is believed to be from the late 1940s, was taken in Canada. Some of the young men were American workers. Suwannee County Native Charles Barrington is second from right.
-Photo: Submitted

Dr. Matthew Vann’s love for tobacco production was kindled in North Florida. He now conducts tobacco research for North Carolina State University. -Photo by Jeffry Boatright