Down in the Old Belt

It was the gold of Jamestown, the birthplace of our nation. Now, tobacco farmers speak to the end of a culture 400 years in the making.

Join cultural geographer and filmmaker James Crawford in an exploration of the history and culture of the Old Belt, the birthplace of bright leaf tobacco. His award-winning documentary, Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the tobacco south, will be screened as the capstone of this lecture.

Eight years in the making, Mr. Crawford began his research of the Old Belt’s tobacco culture by recording oral histories of twenty-six tobacco-farming families, as well as warehousemen, businessmen and politicians of the area. These oral histories provide the foundation by which we can understand this rural farming culture. Many family histories include three and four generations of tobacco farmers on the same land.

Along with these oral histories, Crawford considers the physical, historical, social and economic circumstances of Virginia to understand the conditions that facilitated tobacco’s importance in Virginia’s economic and cultural history.

For eons this plant in the nightshade family grew wild, native only to the Americas. Seven thousand years ago, peoples of the Andes of Peru and Ecuador first cultivated tobacco. By the time Columbus arrived, tobacco was cultivated all over the Americas and used by Native Americans in ceremonies and as a healing herb.

In the 1500's, European contact with the Americas intensified. Explorers introduced tobacco to France, Portugal, Spain, England, Turkey, Poland, and Germany. In the Seventeenth Century, referred to in Europe as "The Great Age of the Pipe", the demand for tobacco in European courts was tremendous. Europeans were crazy for tobacco, snorting it, chewing it and smoking it with increasing demand.

This economic demand for tobacco occurred in conjunction with the establishment of the first permanent English colony in Virginia. Within 12 years of the founding in Jamestown, tobacco was established as the Virginia Colony’s leading export, laying the foundation for a plantation production system based on enslaved Africans, which endured for nearly 250 years. In 1612 John Rolfe raised Virginia's first commercial crop of "tall tobacco". Two years later, the colony shipped the first Virginia grown tobacco for sale to England, and the colony entered the world tobacco market, under English protection.

In 1619, the first Africans arrived on Virginia’s shores. Even before the introduction of African slavery, the demands of tobacco production in the New World had led Englishmen to treat men and women as property.  For the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century most of the labor force was white, often the English poor or Irishmen who had been abducted or coerced into service.

Virginia was endowed with physical characteristics favorable to tobacco production and trade. The Chesapeake Bay’s miles of protected, navigable bays and rivers became the core shipping area for tobacco to England and Europe. Virginia’s Tidewater and Piedmont provided favorable conditions for tobacco cultivation, facilitating tobacco’s rise as the major cash crop of Virginia.  Tobacco exports from Virginia to England grew from 20 thousand pounds in 1619 to 53 million pounds by 1753.

Following the Civil War, sharecropping and tenancy became the main source of labor on tobacco farms across Virginia. The region struggled under Jim Crow racism, poverty and illiteracy. In response to the Great Depression, the tobacco allotment program was established in the late 1930’s by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration as part of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Under the tobacco program, in return for a guaranteed price for their tobacco, farmers agreed to grow only their allotment or share of the tobacco crop. This amount was determined by a formula that included the buying intentions of the tobacco companies for the following year.

The tobacco program stabilized the tobacco growing regions, allowing poor white and black farmers to make a living on the farm. For many of these farmers, tobacco was the money crop and they raised their food on the farm. In the past decade, cuts in the quota, or amount a farmer could grow (and thus earn) were reduced, and by 2001 the cuts approached 50 percent. Virginia's rural farming community faced an uncertain future. The economic stresses experienced by Virginia's tobacco farmers are similar to that experienced by farmers throughout the United States.  The burgeoning global economy is a prime mover in this changing economic reality for tobacco farmers. Tobacco production is currently declining in the United States, and this trend is expected to continue, as foreign tobacco production increases. 

The recent tobacco buyout in 2004, ending the tobacco allotment program, symbolizes the end of the family tobacco farm. Today, companies contract directly with the farmers, and the number of farmers has drastically declined. How Virginia’s tobacco growing regions adapt to these changes has broad reaching economic, social, political, cultural and environmental implications regionally, statewide and nationally.