After the harvest: Farm retires from tobacco after 58 years
Published 6:15 am Monday, March 15, 2021
The routinized life of tobacco farmers can be a comfort to those who have grown burley their whole lives: preparing the seedbeds in January, sowing the seeds in February, planting in May, harvesting in September.
Not only did Mary Collier build a life in that familiar cycle of tobacco, she built it with her husband, and eventually, her children.
But after 58 years, Collier has decided to quit raising tobacco.
“In December, when my son asked, ‘What do you think about quitting?’ I said, ‘It sounds like we’re at the point in our lives where we don’t have a choice,'” said the 76-year-old who lost her husband last year.
Hiring workers has become difficult, even though Collier said she employed only four to six workers at a time.
“A lot of our workers have become ill and can’t work anymore,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of people come and go. Some work on their days off. Some tried it and said they didn’t know it would be this hard. Some who came from the unemployment office said they didn’t know they would have to drive so far.”
Growing up in Greenup County, Collier’s family raised tobacco. So did Jim Collier’s family. Both attended one-room schoolhouses and both bright students were double promoted.
“We just lived 2 miles apart, but we went to different schools and we didn’t know each other,” she said.
After he graduated, he served in the U.S. Army in France, returning home in 1961.
“We met at a country store,” she recalled, noting her future husband was four years her senior. “I was on my way to (Wurtland High) school. He saw me and asked somebody to introduce us.”
Collier said it was love at first sight — they dated a year and, after she was out of high school, they married.
“I knew I’d marry that man,” she said. “He said he was ready to get married and settle down.”
After they married, they rented a tobacco crop from his uncle; Collier explained her husband paid his uncle up front for the crops, raised them and paid him back once the crops were sold. Meanwhile, he also worked full time for CSX.
Eventually, the couple bought a small house and 85-acre farm from his uncle.
“My husband and my brother went into the woods and cut timber on our property for a tobacco barn,” she said. “In about two years, we moved that little house to the farm I live on now and we lived there. They went into the woods again and cut a house pattern and Jim and I worked on our own house and built it.”
She said Jim Collier farmed to increase the family income.
“He was a workaholic, but we wanted the best for our children. We always taught them to have God in their life first, get a good education and things will always work out,” she said.
Father set the example: Jim Collier earned an associate degree in electrical engineering, as did their son, Matt. Daughters Alicia and Kathy earned degrees in math and psychology and metallurgical engineering and chemical engineering, respectively.
It seemed Mary Collier wasn’t meant to further her education: twice she enrolled and twice she was struck with serious illness that confined her to bed: When she was studying to be a nurse, she came down with rheumatic fever and when she returned to school to become a teacher, she was diagnosed with a disease of the connective tissue, which had her bedfast for months.
“They had given me eight to 10 years, but it’s years past that now,” she said. “As quickly as it came on, it went into remission.”
Meanwhile, Jim Collier was developing breathing issues, including COPD. The couple decided to lease other’s crops to increase their income but found, with his health problems, they were unable to take on the work.
“I said, ‘Let’s lease people our tobacco,'” Collier said. “The government had bought everybody out, but we were allowed to get contracts with companies. They loved our tobacco and buyers wanted to know what we did to produce such good tobacco.” She said they sold to R.J. Reynolds, among other well-known names in tobacco.
Collier said their secret was to work hard.
“You have to care for it, It’s like a public job,” she said. “The months you work, it’s only five months, but those are the months you best dedicate to raising tobacco.”
She said her husband had the soil tested to make sure it was correctly fertilized. They also considered the humidity levels and the condition of the crop when it was stripped.
“You have to depend on Mother Nature for how it’s going to grow or not grow,” she said, noting her family had just one bad year.
“It was probably the early 1970s,” she said, admitting farming can be a risky business. “It was a year when it rotten in the barn. We barely had money to make our payments on our farm loan.”
In the late 1980s, the Colliers’ income came 100% from farming.
“From the time we began to the time we quit, you didn’t get that much extra money out it, but here’s the thing: If you paid the people as you went along, and we paid them more than minimum wage, they worked hard. And we got out and worked right there with them.”
The Colliers went out of their way to be good to their employees. She said she made a homecooked breakfast every day for “the co-workers,” as she called them.
“I’d get up at 4 a.m. to make breakfast — sausage, egg and homemade biscuits, every single day. Sometimes it was bacon instead of sausage. We all went to the field together,” she said. “Some would say, ‘I would work for Mary just to get some food.'”
The Colliers also provided a small house for any workers who wanted to stay on the farm until the crops were in, making sure they had a well-stocked kitchen.
By 2002, Collier said her husband had become very ill with lung problems, was hospitalized and on a ventilator for four months. During that time, son Matt ran the farm.
“He knew exactly how to run the farm and tobacco crop,” Collier said. “He did great. Family and friends and co-workers all helped him continue to raise tobacco.”
In 2011, the younger Collier and his family took over the farm, in addition to his job as an electrician with CSX and his own farming of corn and soybeans.
But this year, the process of tobacco farming didn’t get under way in January as it had for decades in the Collier family.
“This was the first year we had not labored on our tobacco crop in 58 years,” she said.
Jim Collier died on April 2, 2020. His wife said she and her son hadn’t talked about it until they made the decision in December.
“My son works at a public job, plus he farms corn and soybeans on the side,” Collier said. “His wife is a photographer. They have three beautiful children. Matt wishes to spend more time with his family.”
Collier said giving up tobacco farming is bittersweet.
“I will miss going out and hanging out with my son and the co-workers. I’ll miss that a lot,” she said. “It made me realize I was going to a different era in my life, a new beginning. It was sad.”
She said there were other positives about working in the field.
“You stay physically and mentally fit. The fresh air and sunshine are amazing. I loved the team work with my family and co-workers,” she said. However, she is looking forward to traveling with her daughters and helping with her new granddaughter. Her first retirement trip will be to New Orleans.