Growing Up Gold: My Child Labor Experiences on a NC Tobacco Farm

Today my life revolves around meat, but that was not always the case.  I grew up on a small tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina.  Some of my earliest memories involve planting and harvesting this golden leaf; I still get nostalgic when I smell cured tobacco. 

While my mother tried to shield me from much of the farm labor, no member of our family was exempt from contributing to the operation of our tobacco farm.  Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I learned the value of hard work and the importance of family in those dirt fields.  I grew to appreciate the early morning snack breaks that always consisted of Pepsi Cola’s in a glass bottle and Sunbeam Honey Buns.  While I never liked “topping” the tobacco (manually removing the plant’s flowers), I can still remember the sense of accomplishment that came from looking back down the row and seeing how far I had progressed.  I recall trucking the tobacco to the barn and feeling empowered as I helped to slide the racks inside…working alongside the other adults, I felt that I could accomplish anything.  There was always tobacco gum under my fingernails and “tater ridges” (my momma’s Southern jargon for dirt) under my neck, but I would not trade my time in those Edgecombe County fields for anything.  Therefore, when I awoke this morning to sensationalized media reports that “children as young as 7 are working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous and sweltering conditions” I knew I had to respond. 

The tobacco farming described by Human Rights Watch in this story (http://mm.hrw.org/content/made-usa-child-labor-tobacco) does not align with the highly regulated standards currently embraced by North Carolina’s farmers.  The United States Department of Labor and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture have clearly established guidelines detailing the role of child workers on the farm.  The Fair Labor Standards Act helps to ensure that all workers – including those under the age of 18 – are kept safe and are properly trained for the tasks they are assigned.  As a result, the US Department of Labor only reported one incident of a child labor violation during North Carolina’s 2012 crop season.  In addition, the hand harvesting used during my childhood – and described in this report – is extremely outdated.  Advancements in farm technology have resulted in more mechanized processes and a limited the number of workers – including minor children – employed by North Carolina’s farmers.  Furthermore, all United States tobacco growers are required by the purchasing companies to achieve annual Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification.  A key area of this course includes Farm Safety, Worker Training, and Green Tobacco Sickness.  Detailed records must be maintained and presented prior to selling their crop; failure to comply with any GAP requirement could mean a loss of income for the farmer…a risk that few are willing to take just to utilize child labor. 

As a mom, I care deeply for children of North Carolina.  While I can appreciate groups like Human Rights Watch’s passion for child safety, I am much more concerned with the teenage violence in our cities and the adolescent bullying in our schools than I am with the experiences of our children in a tobacco field.  This article claims our farms “are not a place for children”; however, for this North Carolina mom, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather raise my family.

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