Tobacco seeds are started very early in the year. The seeds are scattered onto the surface of the soil, as their germination is activated by light. In colonial Virginia, seedbeds were fertilized with wood ash or animal manure (frequently powdered horse manure). Seedbeds were then covered with branches to protect the young plants from frost damage. These plants were left to grow until around April.
Today, in the United States, unlike other countries, tobacco is often fertilized with the mineral apatite in order to partially starve the plant for nitrogen, which changes the taste. This accounts for the different flavor of American cigarettes from those available in other countries. There is, however, some suggestion that this may have adverse health effects attributable to the polonium content of apatite.
After the plants have reached a certain height, they are transplanted into fields. This was originally done by making a relatively large hole in the tilled earth with a tobacco peg, then placing the small plant in the hole. Various mechanical tobacco planters were invented throughout the late 19th and early 20th century to automate this process, making a hole, fertilizing it, and guiding a plant into the hole with one motion.
Topping and suckering
Once the tobacco plants are growing well, they will begin to produce shoots from the joint of each leaf with the stalk. These secondary shoots known as "suckers" are undesirable as they divert energy that could be directed into the leaves. They are removed in a process known as "suckering" (sometimes spelled "succoring" in older writing). Generally this is done by hand several times during the season. Recently anti-suckering compounds have come into use.
Tobacco is harvested in one of two ways. In the oldest method, the entire plant is harvested at once by cutting off the stalk at the ground with a curved knife. In the nineteenth century, bright tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco may go through several "pullings" before the tobacco is entirely harvested, and the stalks may be turned into the soil. "Cropping" is the term for pulling leaves off tobbacco. Originally workers cropped the tobacco and placed it on mule-pulled sleds. Later "tobacco harvesters" were invented - basically a trailer pulled behind a tractor. The harvester is a wheeled sled or trailer that has seats for the croppers to sit on and seats just in front of these for the "stringers" to sit on. The croppers pull the leaves off in handfuls, and pass these to the "stringer", who loops twine around the handfuls of tobacco and hangs them on a long wooden square pole. Traditionally, the croppers, down in the dark and wet, with their faces getting slapped by the huge tobacco leaves, were men, and the stringers seated on the higher elevated seats were women. The harvester has places for 4 teams of workers: 8 people cropping and stringing, plus a packer who takes the heavy strung poles of wet green tobacco from the stringers and packs them onto the pallet section of the harvester, plus a driver, making the total crew of each harvester 10 people. Interstingly, the outer seats are suspended from the harvester - slung out over to fit into the aisles of tobacco. As these seats are suspended it is important to balance the weight of the 2 outside teams (similar to a playground see-saw). Having too heavy or light a person in an unbalanced combination often results in the harvester tipping over especially when turning around at the end of a lane. Leaves are cropped as they ripen, from the bottom of the stalk up. The first crop at the very bottom of the stalks are called "sand lugs", as they are often against the ground and are coated with dirt splashed up when it rains. Sand lugs weigh the most, and are most difficult to work with. Water tanks are a common feature on the harvester due to heat, and danger of de-hydration for the workers. Salt tablets sometimes get used as well.
Pests of tobacco include the moths Endoclita excrescens, Manduca sexta, and Manduca quinquemaculata. Other Lepidoptera whose larvae use tobacco as a food plant include Angle Shades, Cabbage Moth, Mouse Moth, The Nutmeg, Setaceous Hebrew Character and Turnip Moth.
Myrtleford, Victoria, Australia: historic tobacco kilnCut plants or pulled leaves are immediately transferred to tobacco barns, where they will be cured. Curing methods varies with the type of tobacco grown, and tobacco barn design varies accordingly. Air-cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry over a period of days. Fire-cured tobacco is hung in large barns where smoldering fires of hardwoods are kept burning. Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in large cubical barns (Aus: kilns, also traditionally called Oasts). These barns have flues which run from externally-fed fire boxes to the roof, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke. Curing and subsequent aging allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in tobacco leaf. This produces certain compounds in the tobacco leaves and them give a sweet hay, tea, or fruity aromatic flavor that contribute to the "smoothness" of the smoke. The aging process continues for a period of months and often extends into the post-curing process. Unaged or low quality tobacco is often flavoured with these naturally occurring compounds. Tobacco flavoring is a significant part of a multi-million dollar industry.
After tobacco is cured, it is moved from the curing barn into a storage area for processing. If whole plants were cut, the leaves are removed from the tobacco stalks in a process called stripping. For both cut and pulled tobacco, the leaves are then sorted into different grades. In colonial times, the tobacco was then "prized" into hogsheads for transportation. In bright tobacco regions, prizing was replaced by stacking wrapped "hands" into loose piles to be sold at auction. Today, most cured tobacco is baled before sales under contract.