North Carolina’s agricultural history is rich. With new farming technology, and many new people in the state from other areas, there are opportunities to share that history. The tobacco barn at the North Carolina State Fair aims to educate people on the history of the tobacco, through examples tobacco stringing and the curing process.
“We use the same recipe that all farmers used 150 years ago, so we start out slow at the same temperature as it is outside and ease up about 5 degrees every day and we don’t go over 100 until we get all the green out,” said Pat Short, exhibit coordinator with the tobacco barn.
Every year, a tobacco stringing competition is held on the first Friday of the N.C. State Fair. Anyone can enter this competition and show off their stringing capabilities. After the competition, the tobacco strung during the event gets loaded into the barn to begin the flue-curing process.
“We start a very small fire and that warms the barn just a little warmer than outside. Each day the barn gets a little warmer on its own, so the temperature slowly rises every day and we keep the small fire going for the first three days. We don’t give it any outside air on those days,” Short said.
The wood-burned fire stays lit for around a week until the leaves are completely dry. This means that people need to stay overnight at the tobacco barn to ensure that the fire continues to burn. While this may sound like a daunting task, volunteers make the most of it.
“It’s fun to stay overnight, there’s cooking and storytelling. Volunteers stay to monitor the barn and make sure that the fire keeps going because you don’t want the fire to go completely out. Once you start the process of slowly warming the tobacco, you want to hold the temperature,” Short said.
Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the North Carolina Tobacco Grower’s Association, is among the volunteers who take night shifts at the tobacco barn. He has been a part of the curing crew for more than 18 years. “We started off providing refreshments for the volunteers, and I have been part of the curing crew since the first year.” Even with the lack of sleep, Boyd still appreciates his time at the barn.
“There’s not a lot of sleeping because the State Fair is just as busy and loud at night as it is during the day, it just changes complexion. The fairgrounds never sleep, instead of screams from rides you hear the scream of a leaf blower,” Boyd said.
Boyd spends a lot of time over the 11 days of the fair at the fairgrounds. On top of working with the Tobacco Growers Association as the sponsoring resident of the Bowles House, he also works at the tobacco barn.
The Bowles House, located right beside the tobacco barn in Heritage Circle, showcases antique tobacco farming machinery, and hosts the annual tobacco hand-tie competition. “We use that facility to promote the economic impact of the tobacco crop and display facts and information about our history and our future,” Boyd said.
Displaying the history of tobacco farming is at the heart of the tobacco barn’s mission. Seeing the curing process from the outside of the barn gives insight into how things used to be done. Since less people are farming tobacco these days, educating the public on the heritage of the crop is important.
“The greatest attribute of the barn is how much it puts the tobacco history on display for the tens of thousands of visitors that pass it. It creates an opportunity for people to interact with the audience about the heritage and importance of tobacco farming,” Boyd said.
The visitors aren’t the only ones who are impacted by the work of the tobacco barn, Boyd believes that farmers themselves appreciate what’s done at the fair. “Our tobacco farmers are extremely grateful for Commissioner Troxler and the State Fair for their commitment to the heritage of the crop. We love the amount of improvements that have been made to the Heritage Circle and being able to preserve the historical context,” Boyd said.
No matter your age, seeing this history is beneficial, Short added “It lights up the older people that grew up in a tobacco family because they haven’t seen it since they were a kid. Then you’ve got other people, like kids and transplants. They don’t understand it so it’s an educational tool in those cases. Everyone gets something, whether it be remembering their childhood or the ability to understand what it was like.”
Boyd has a unique perspective on the barn. Seeing the historical way of tobacco faming as a kid but growing up to see the technological advancements lets him appreciate the hard work that older generations put into farming. To get a crop, farmers had to commit to months of day and night work.
“In the 1980s when I was a teenager, we saw stick barns transition to bulk barns. My generation is the last to remember small farms where all the labor was comprised of young people that would rotate from farm to farm. I can remember the entire process, none of it exists now today. To see what I remember, you have to come to the tobacco barn at the State Fair,” Boyd said.
After the tobacco is strung and cured, visitors are allowed to go inside the barn to see the result of the process. Then, a mock tobacco auction is held on the last Friday of the Fair at the Tobacco Pavilion. Once the Fair ends, the tobacco is used year-round by the Tobacco Growers Association for displays, decorations and even gifts.
To see the entire process of historical tobacco curing from stringing to burning, make sure to visit the tobacco barn at the 2023 N.C. State Fair from Oct. 12-22. Be sure to stop by the Bowles House to learn more about tobacco farming while you’re there.