I’m hunting the ghost of tobacco farming with Taylor Barnhill from the Appalachian Barn Alliance. As we drive around the tight curves and steep hillsides of Madison County, we see dozens of old barns teetering on the edge of the road. The wooden boards are worn and faded, vines climb up the sides, and many of the barns look like they haven’t been touched in a hundred years.
Yet these barns are not static relics of the past. The tobacco leaves hanging from the rafters are long gone, but each barn holds a story of resilience, ingenuity, and hard work.
“This is the John Shelton log tobacco barn,” Taylor exclaims as a barn comes into view. “I love the story behind this.”
The car rumbles down a jagged driveway. We get out and walk over wet leaves to get a better look at the barn, which has been standing beside a rushing creek since the 1930s.
“John and his daughter in law, Pearl, built this barn. You can look at these logs. They’re very straight, very round. They’re just beautiful. There’s 100 logs in this barn,” Taylor explains. “They didn’t have a tractor or heavy equipment to build this barn, so John and his daughter in law, Pearl, went way over the mountain here to the Doe Branch Valley, where there was apparently this stand of very straight white pine trees and cut these 100 trees, dragged them back with a team of mules, maybe as much as two miles.”
I ask where they would have grown the tobacco that once hung in this barn.
“Well, some of it right where we’re standing,” Taylor says. “This is less than a tenth of an acre we’re standing in, but it’s flat. They would have grown it here and they would have grown it all around these hillsides. Anywhere they could find a cleared spot, that’s where they grew the tobacco.”
Tobacco was grown by thousands of families in Madison County and other areas of Western North Carolina. It didn’t take much land to grow enough tobacco to sell at auction, which paid for property taxes, barn repairs, and other necessities.
Farming tobacco was a point of pride for many people. Neighbors and friends came together to harvest the crop and hang it in these barns to cure each fall, swapping stories while they worked late into the night.
Growing tobacco also gave people resources to be independent.
“Women would often have their own tobacco patch. Like that little piece of ground across the creek over there, that long, narrow piece might be the wife’s tobacco patch. That was her own patch. She grew it. She maintained it. And the money she got from the sale was for her and her only,” Taylor says.
Tobacco farming isn’t completely gone in Madison County. Next we visit a barn that stands on one the last working tobacco farms in the area—the Claude Wild Barn on Big Pine Road in Walnut, NC.
Mist hovers over the hillside. Two massive white horses emerge and lean their heads over the fence. Taylor explains that this is one of the last farms in Madison County that still uses draft horses. He adds that the current owner, Alan, is very hospitable and encourages Taylor to come with tours anytime.
We peek inside to see if there’s any tobacco hanging in the barn. It’s too late in the season to see the golden leaves of tobacco that were hanging here just months ago, but we do find nearly a dozen tobacco cutting knives.
“Some of these are ancient,” Taylor says with awe. “Man, he has a huge collection of them. That tells you that when he’s ready to cut, he’s got a small army of neighbors out there helping him”
Taylor knows of three farmers in the county still growing tobacco, but that number is dwindling every year.
“Alan says that was the last crop he’s going to grow,” Taylor says. “A lot of these farms are being bought by folks moving into the area.”
What does the next generation look like for these old barns in Madison County? I went over to Root Bottom Farm just a few miles away, where Sarah Jones Decker invited me inside their barn to talk.
“So you are in our tobacco barn, which we fondly call The Garlic Pearl,” Sarah says. “It’s a two story tobacco barn that was built in 1974. It’s a traditional pole barn. You can actually look across the road and see the big hole in the forest where they cut all the pine trees down and drug them here.”
Unlike the other barns I saw today, this one is full of activity.
“We use this for our harvesting, for our drying. We have a walk-in cooler here now. Every single day, from April to October, we use this space. Instead of hanging tobacco, of course, we hang garlic,” she says.
Root Bottom Farm grows more than a dozen varieties of garlic, which is why they named the barn The Garlic Pearl. They also grow berries, microgreens, and fields of root crops. Sarah, who is originally from rural Virginia, and her husband Morgan, who was farming in Utah, started their farm in Madison County because it reminded Sarah of where she grew up, and because it’s a lot easier to grow produce in this climate.
Sarah says the farm was in rough shape when they bought it in 2011. It took a lot of work to revive the land and renovate the barn. Just like tobacco farmers before her, Sarah relies on her own skills to maintain it.
“We repaired the roof this year. So I was up on the roof; I painted the roof and repaired all the holes,” she says.
In years past, Root Bottom Farm has used their barn for agritourism. Dozens of people sat inside the barn or outside under the stars, passing plates of food made by a local chef. The fruits and vegetables were grown within eyesight and the meat and dairy came from other farms just down the road.
“It really is something special to gather around the table, especially when you’re like 100 feet from where the food was grown,” she says.
The farm is gearing up for another busy season. This year they’ll focus on growing more fruits and vegetables, making jam and garlic butter, and selling them at farmers markets.
“I think there are a lot of people who are working hard out here and a lot of people who are taking these properties and really giving them a second chance. I could list 20 of my friends in my age group that are doing this exact same thing right now,” she says.
The crops hanging from the rafters are different, but the bonds formed in these barns remain the same. For Taylor, these old barns represent the heart of the farm.
“When you’re standing in one of these 150 year old barns, you can imagine all the sounds of the livestock, the chickens, the ducks, the children everywhere. Everybody knew what their job was, and they all did it as a family and as a community,” he says.
Learn more about the history of tobacco farming and the future of local food at https://asapconnections.org/report/end-of-tobacco/
Re-run aired January 4, 2021