On Penhook tobacco farm, 1 more time to plant, harvest

December 15, 2018
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In this Feb. 27, 2018 photo, family and friends of Sharon Angell, far right, take a break from seeding the greenhouse on she relaxes with Diane Reynolds, left, Keegan Crawley, Mike France, and Sammy Turner in Penhook, Va. "When we seed the greenhouse we try and get together and have a good time and get the job done, but it's a whole lot of fun and it means a lot to me that the neighbors and everyone are willing to help ," said Angell. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP)

PENHOOK, Va. (AP) — When the certified letter from Farm Credit of the Virginias arrived, Johnny Angell wasn’t surprised.

The struggling tobacco farmer, battling a changed industry and failing health, knew he’d fallen behind on payments. The letter, dated Feb. 12, just spelled out the specifics.

It said Angell was 73 days late and owed more than $880,000. If he and his wife Sharon didn’t pay up by March 15, Farm Credit would begin foreclosure proceedings on the couple’s 364 acres of land in Penhook.

Despite Johnny’s affection for the land, he had “no sour grapes” about Farm Credit coming to collect. He was a practical man.

“Everything I’d done was pretty much with somebody’s borrowed dollar. And they like to be paid,” Johnny said. “And I feel like I’m honor-bound to pay it.”

But his beliefs didn’t change one simple fact: He and Sharon couldn’t pay the debt.

Since marrying in 1973, the couple dedicated their lives to tobacco farming. But the Angells could hardly make a living by growing it anymore. Now in their 60s, they stood to lose everything the grueling days in the field had earned them.

Johnny had not set foot on his farm in years, instead spending his days and nights lying in a hospital bed in their home. His health problems were vast and varied. He could not walk and was on dialysis, which Sharon administered at home.

“All I can hope is the next landowner will love that piece of land as much as I do,” he said.

But Johnny would not get a chance to meet the new owners, to tell them about the beauty of the land that he and Sharon enjoyed for all these years. He died May 14 at the age of 64.

Though Johnny and Sharon’s lives were thrust into disarray this year, they continued to farm. It provided a sense of normalcy. For their entire marriage, their lives had revolved around tobacco. Johnny learned about the crop when he married Sharon, who came from a tobacco farming family.

On their wedding night — “this is the honest truth,” Johnny promised — the couple went straight to sleep after arriving at a motel. They had to help her parents plant their crop in the morning.

“I learned real quick back then, at an early age helping them farm tobacco, that tobacco always came first,” Johnny said.

He and Sharon lived by that rule. The couple didn’t take vacations. The only fireworks displays they saw on Independence Day were ones visible from the tobacco fields. Occasionally, they put off Johnny’s dialysis treatments, if the crop needed attention.

Even as the couple stood to lose it all, they kept on farming.

Tobacco season began about 7:30 on a February morning. The greenhouse on the Angell property was bustling with activity. An assembly line that included Sharon and 10 friends and family members worked efficiently to seed the greenhouse.

Johnny was at home. The sidelined farmer was keenly aware that he relied on friends and family to plant his tobacco in his greenhouse on his land. He said it was the kindness of humanity that kept him going.

The Angells used red pelleted tobacco seeds small as the tip of a pen. The greenhouse would hold half a million plants if every one of them came up.

There were more than 1,700 Styrofoam trays, divided into grids. A single seed was placed in each square. The trays were filled with Carolina’s Choice Tobacco Mix, then placed under a brush that dusted off any excess soil and a spinning device that made a dimple in each square, where the seed was deposited.

Gary Reynolds, a fellow tobacco farmer, manned the seeder. The seeds sat atop the contraption and then traveled through straws and into the dimples created in each square of the tray.

When the trays reached the end of the assembly line, Sharon checked that each square had only one seed. Then she handed the trays off to Gary’s nephew Thomas Crawley, who in his 30s was one of the youngest of the bunch. He carefully placed each in a bay of water with a gentle shove so it could glide to the back of an orderly row.

The crew paused for a break, crowding around the bed of Sharon’s truck loaded up with sodas and snacks. A few lit cigarettes. Ironically, smoking in the greenhouse was forbidden. It could damage the plants.

Sammy Turner said he’d been working with tobacco since he was 6 or 7. He grew up on a tobacco farm — most everybody here did, he said. But few remain in operation in Franklin County.

“It’s a thing of the past,” Sammy said.

The Angells live in a humble home on Potters Creek Road in Penhook.

“Just an old shack. But it’s home,” Johnny said.

Johnny’s hospital bed was the central focus of the living room, where the couple spent most of their time. The walls were dotted with ladybugs, given a front door that was nearly always open to allow for the entrance of a breeze or a friend. Though some might consider the polka-dotted creature a pest, the Angells welcomed them.

The living room was decorated with photographs, paintings and newspaper clippings that tell the story of Johnny and Sharon’s life together.

Above the couch was a framed front page of The Roanoke Times from 2005 featuring a large photograph of Johnny and Sharon, all smiles, along with an article about shrimp farming, an effort to diversify when tobacco took a hit.

The opposite wall featured a watercolor painting of their home. Johnny loaned the artist some equipment, and he gave the painting in return.

The steady, rhythmic humming of Johnny’s medical devices provided the soundtrack to their days.

Their little blue house sits on 33 acres. The Angells purchased it in 1997 after a fire destroyed the home Sharon grew up in, where the couple had lived since marrying. Separately, the Angells purchased an adjoining 331-acre property.

Not long after, the federal government announced the elimination of its price support and quota program for tobacco, a move that would change the industry dramatically.

“If you’ve lived as close to the land as Sharon and I have and that good a piece of farm property comes for sale next to you, you have an interest in buying it,” Johnny said.

They loved their land and everything on it, from the flowers, to the wildlife, to the pond where the couple liked to have fishing competitions when Johnny was in better health.

“That was half the reason I was a farmer, is to hopefully take care of the land,” Johnny said. “Growing tobacco was the means by which I paid for it, but my great love was just being out in a rural area.”

Johnny’s specialty was flue-cured tobacco. He proudly said this part of Virginia produces some of the best in the world.

The Angells did not typically plant all their tobacco on their combined 364 acres on Potters Creek Road. They also utilized properties owned by Sharon’s family, one being the farm where she grew up, which they jointly own with one of Sharon’s siblings. This year, with the foreclosure hanging over their heads, all of the tobacco was planted on family land, none on their 364 acres.

Though the Angells had access to other farmland, losing the 364 acres they solely owned still would be detrimental. The properties included their home and the greenhouse, along with valuable fields that could be planted or bartered with another farmer.

When the tobacco industry soured, the Angells experimented. They made a go at shrimp farming, but production costs were too high to make it profitable.

Johnny said he would have liked to try beef cattle but had no one to feed and care for them on a daily basis. He and Sharon relied on seasonal workers from Mexico for their tobacco operation.

Perhaps he could have tried another crop, like soybeans. But few would generate the same income as tobacco. For all its troubles, tobacco remains one of the most valuable crops in Franklin County. And Johnny spent all his working years growing it.

“What do you do, if everything you’ve done is for the production of flue-cured tobacco? You have no other alternative,” he said. “I can’t grow cotton or peanuts or turnips or nothing else. It’s a specialized farm growing a specialized product. I like to think I was good at it, but unfortunately, it don’t matter what you grow, you’ve got to have a willing buyer.”

That’s harder to find these days, with smoking on the decline and more foreign competition.

Johnny would have liked the new owners of his properties to remain true to their agricultural roots. But Johnny knew he wouldn’t have a say in the matter, what he called “one of the beauties of owning real estate in a free country.”

If he let himself, Johnny could have obsessed over what would happen to the farm. But pragmatism overpowered nostalgia.

“When you die, you ain’t going to take it with you,” Johnny said. “And I ain’t got no children to leave it to.”

As Sharon and Sammy headed to the greenhouse to mow the growing tobacco plants on one April day, Sharon joked with her husband about coming along.

“I wish I could,” Johnny said sadly.

Sharon offered to fetch Johnny more water or anything else he might need during the brief time she’d leave his side. He told her to go ahead.

“I’ll be here praying,” Johnny said. For rain, for salvation, he said. For no pain, Sharon offered.

The tiny red seeds planted weeks ago sprouted into green plants. The greenhouse was densely packed with them, save for a narrow strip down the middle.

Sammy attached a mower to a horizontal rail, which glided up and down tracks on either side of the greenhouse. He situated the mower over a row of plants, and pushed the rail down the aisle, shearing the plants along the way. The plants required regular mowing to keep them uniform and healthy.

He stopped to empty the bag of fresh clippings into a wheelbarrow. The task left Sammy’s hands stained green.

“If it weren’t for Sammy we probably wouldn’t be farming now,” Sharon said.

He came through the greenhouse every day to check on the plants and would continue to lend a hand until the harvest was complete.

“He likes to pick and tease, but he’d do anything for you,” Sharon said of Sammy, a jokester with a mischievous sense of humor.

For many years, the kindness of friends kept the Angells in the tobacco business. But now, that might not be enough.

In the days before his death, Johnny was reflective. He’d enjoyed his life, but it wasn’t without pain — especially lately.

“I beg God just to go and take me sometimes,” he said.

It would be easier, Johnny mused, if he were no longer around when the farm was finally sold at a foreclosure auction. His death would give Sharon more flexibility in deciding where to live, as she would not have the complications of his mobility and medical condition to consider.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m hoping to get out of the way,” he said. “I’m just saying the practical side of it.”

Sharon, who had quietly devoted her life to caring for her husband, shook her head.

Later, on the way to the greenhouse, Sharon admitted it bothered her to hear Johnny speak as if he were a burden.

“I told him, don’t nobody say that but him,” Sharon said.

But she could understand why her husband might feel ready to pass on. He’d been in so much pain. Still, Sharon held out hope that Johnny’s health would somehow turn.

“I could stand losing everything if he got better,” she said tearfully.

In sharing his story, Johnny said he hoped people would be grateful for what they have, particularly their health.

Johnny’s life was not grand, but it was full.

He had a wife he loved dearly. They had never spent a night apart. Even when Johnny was in the hospital for months at a time, Sharon slept on a cot in his room.

And he had a career growing tobacco, spending his days in the field, tending to the crop on which he had become an expert. There was something fulfilling, he said, about coming home after a hard day’s work, slick with sweat.

Sharon and tobacco were the two constants in Johnny’s life. One came with the other. Both were beside him until the very end.

Had Johnny lived, June 2 would have marked the 45th anniversary of his wedding to Sharon. Instead, their properties were set to go to auction.

But after consulting with a lawyer, Sharon decided at the last minute to file for bankruptcy.

“Since Johnny died it’s left up to me to decide,” Sharon said.

The auction came to a grinding halt — at least temporarily. But many potential buyers didn’t get the message in time. Auctioneers were on site that Saturday morning, turning them away.

As their cars departed Potters Creek Road, Sharon perched on the edge of Johnny’s hospital bed, stripped of its sheets and pushed to the side of the living room. A friend walked in.

“Is this good news?” she asked hopefully.

“There’s still going to be a sale, just not today,” Sharon said.

Filing for bankruptcy wouldn’t necessarily save the properties. Sharon still had debts that needed to be paid. Court documents showed that not only did the Angells owe $880,000 to Farm Credit of the Virginias, but also another $225,000 to Farm Service Agency.

Sharon’s Roanoke lawyer Michael Hart said the goal would be to sell the properties for a price that would cover both debts. Otherwise, Sharon could lose them both and still owe something.

The two properties were appraised at roughly $1.5 million, according to court documents.

Sharon hoped the 331-acre tract would sell for enough to cover her debts, allowing her to keep the 33-acre tract and stay in her home. But she knew that might not happen.

Before he died, Johnny told his wife to sell it all if she must.

Just a few weeks after Johnny’s death, Sharon was back in the fields. Tobacco allows little time for mourning.

Sammy fired up the tractor, calling out, “Ready amigos?” His question is posed to the men seated on the planter who arrived from Mexico.

Each had a basin full of tobacco plants. The ends of the plants were still damp, freshly plucked from trays previously stored in the greenhouse.

Sammy pulled the tractor up to the field, an expanse of reddish-brown dirt with neat rows of small, green tobacco plants as far as the eye could see.

First, the land was sprayed with water and fertilizer. Then the men each grabbed a single plant and placed it into the “finger” of a wheel-like spinner that deposited the plant into the ground. They stopped only when the water barrels on the tractor ran dry.

Sharon walked through the field, scrutinizing the men’s handiwork. She straddled a plant and squeezed her feet together to cover its roots with soil. If exposed, they could dry out and die.

“It’s a gamble with anything you do in farming,” Sharon said. Some years are too wet, others too dry. Or you could have another problem crop up. Farming is a lot of waiting and seeing.

On this day the sky was clear blue, a blessing after a rainy few weeks that delayed planting. The sun beat down. Despite the protection of hats, brows quickly grew shiny with sweat.

Growing tobacco is hot and hard work. That’s why Johnny and Sharon enlisted the help of seasonal workers from Mexico decades ago — no one local wanted the grueling job. The men travel from their homes in Nayarit to the Angell farm in Penhook through the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Five arrived in April, and three more in July.

Some have helped the Angells with their tobacco for more than 20 years and become like family. They are part of the reason Johnny and Sharon decided to go forward with a crop this year.

“I feel sure all of them were hoping they could grow tobacco here for 30 more years,” Johnny had said. “And I wish we could.”

Sharon eased her red pickup to a stop at the tobacco field, where the migrant workers swung their hoes through the air, chopping weeds.

Lively music played, at times punctuated by the metallic clanging of a hoe making contact with rocks in the red soil. Sharon described chopping weeds as a monotonous task that could fill an entire day. The music helped to pass the time.

“Sometimes they’ve got it so loud it gives me a headache,” she said.

Sharon came out to the field on this steamy June day to inspect their work, but mostly to make sure the men stayed hydrated. She brought a cooler packed with drinks and snacks.

“Ready for a refresco?” she asked, offering the group sodas. The men laughed, cracked jokes and drank not only what Sharon brought, but also from large jugs of water. They clustered in the small bit of shade provided by the shadow of a rusted blue truck.

The break was brief. Once the men drained and crushed their aluminum cans, they got back to work, trying to get as much done as possible before lunch and a midafternoon break.

Half the men returned to the field, hoes in hand. Brothers Adrian and Chava Castellon, who as the longest-tenured Angell employees became crew leaders, trekked down to another field where they shifted from weeding to fertilizing.

They ripped open bags of tobacco premium fertilizer and filled the fertilizer hoppers attached to a green John Deere tractor. Adrian climbed into it, carefully positioning the tractor so its wheels lined up with the spaces left between the rows. A fine stream of fertilizer shot out from the tubes attached to the hoppers.

Chava, meanwhile, sought shade on a trailer bed piled with bags of fertilizer parked under a tree. The heat was punishing.

“It zaps me and I know it zaps them too,” Sharon said as she looked out over the field.

Sharon hopped into her truck and returned to the house that felt too quiet without Johnny. Some days, she said, are harder than others. Johnny’s hospital bed was still in the living room. Sharon’s sister asked when she’d get rid of it. That hadn’t occurred to Sharon. She had too many other things on her mind.

Sitting in her truck outside the little blue house, Sharon pondered what would become of it. She couldn’t say whether Johnny’s death would make it harder or easier to leave. Her emotions were wrapped not so much in the house, Sharon said, but the memories made there.

“That’s where we lived,” she said simply.

Sharon dried her misty eyes with her T-shirt.

“It’ll work out some way or another,” Sharon said. “It always does.”

The tobacco grew so tall that it was hard to spot the farmhands bent at the waist plucking leaves from the bottom of the stalks on a dewy August morning.

But the occasional gentle shaking of a stalk, coupled with the rhythmic snapping of leaves being freed from the plant gave them away. It was just after 7 a.m., and chilly. The men wore windbreakers made slick by tobacco plants damp with morning dew.

The men emerged from the field, their arms full with green leaves. They loaded the plants onto racks on a flatbed trailer that would then be placed in curing barns.

Sharon, clad in a straw hat with duct tape on its edge, straightened the piles of leaves and picked up ones dropped along the way.

Though the crew worked efficiently and the flatbed trailer filled up quickly, there was still an overwhelming amount of tobacco to be picked — the Angells had contracts to grow around 110,000 pounds of tobacco and this was only the second day in the process.

Sharon walked down the grassy lane between the fields, surveying her tobacco. She mentioned finding a buyer for the smaller of the two properties, the 33-acre parcel that included her home.

The buyer was a friend of Sharon’s nephew from Virginia Tech who had been hunting on their property several times. He told Sharon she could stay in the house as long as she liked.

“That’s the best news I’ve had in I don’t know when,” Sharon said, though her face failed to convey it.

The deal hadn’t closed yet, but Sharon felt no rush.

“I ain’t going nowhere,” she said. “Except the tobacco field.”

When the doors to the curing barn swung open, the sweet smell of tobacco filled the air and the nostrils of anyone within sniffing distance.

The tobacco transformed dramatically since it was pulled from the field. No longer lush and green, it was now dried and yellowed.

Sharon explained the process: Once the leaves are placed inside the barn, the temperature is set around 90 degrees. The tobacco yellows for a few days, and when it reaches the desired color, the heat is gradually raised, topping out at about 160 degrees. A fan runs to keep the leaves from scalding. When the curing is complete, a humidifier adds moisture so the leaves aren’t too dry to handle. Otherwise, Sharon said, they’d be like cornflakes.

“You wouldn’t have leaves,” she said. “You’d have dust, crumbs.”

The leaves typically stay in the curing barn for a week to 10 days.

The crew wasted no time, pulling racks from the barn as soon as the doors were opened. They scooped the tobacco up into their arms and brought it to the baler that would tightly pack the leaves into a perfect cube.

The men gently heaved their armfuls of tobacco into the baler, treating the leaves delicately.

When the baler filled, Chava allowed a metal plate that Sharon and Sammy called “the plunger” to descend onto the pile. It compressed the leaves, making room for more.

This process continued — adding leaves, running the plunger — until the scale on the side of the baler indicated the appropriate weight. Bales should weigh between 600 and 750 pounds, Sharon said.

Sharon whipped out a small spiral-bound notebook and Sharpie and recorded the weight: 674 pounds.

Finally, the bale was released. The men secured the neat cube with wire. Adrian hoisted it into the air with a forklift, and deposited the bale in a nearby barn where it would wait until Sharon could drive it to Danville for sale.

The Angells’ 331-acre tract was scheduled for an auction — for real this time. By this point, Sharon had come to terms with the sale. Her approach to it was more practical than emotional.

“I just hope it brings enough money,” she said.

Sharon hadn’t decided yet if she would attend the auction. The needs of the crop would guide her decision, as they always have. “It depends on the tobacco,” Sharon said.

It was the last day of October and the last day of tobacco season. Since February, the crop had been planted and harvested, yet the fate of the Angell farm was no clearer than when the season began.

The bankruptcy court rejected the top bid from the auction. At just under $415,000, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the Farm Credit debt.

Hart, Sharon’s attorney, said the auctioneer has an exclusive right to sale for 120 days and Sharon has until March 31 to close a sale. If the property hasn’t sold by then, he said, Farm Credit can proceed with foreclosure.

“I was hoping I’d get enough money to get out of debt and be done with it,” Sharon said.

But now it’s back to square one. To more questions, more stress.

Sharon wasn’t sure if this would be her last year growing tobacco, as she and Johnny initially thought. She could use the income, especially if still on the hook for the debt to Farm Service Agency. Sharon couldn’t see what the future held.

There was one bright spot. The 33-acre property with her home sold for $149,000 to her nephew’s friend, court documents show. It was a small dent in what she owed, but it meant Sharon still had a place to call home.

Sharon considered the fate of the farm as the men who helped her through the season emptied and baled tobacco from the last curing barn. They were scheduled to leave in three days.

She was at once sad and relieved that they would be leaving.

“They’ve been a whole lot of company since Johnny died,” she said.

But their departure also signaled the end of what had been a difficult year.

“I’m ready to be done with this crop. It’s been a tough year,” Sharon said. She mentioned only challenging weather conditions.

Though it’d been years since Johnny was out in the fields working the tobacco himself, he still offered direction and advice to Sharon. This year she had to do much of it without him.

“I didn’t have him to tell me what I was doing wrong,” she said. “Or right.”

Sharon placed her elbows on the discarded metal racks, empty of leaves, and rested her chin in her hands as she watched the men clear the curing barn.

Finally, it was empty, the last bale made, its weight recorded. The men began to load 12 perfectly packed tobacco cubes onto the truck Sharon would drive to Danville.

“One more and that’ll be the crop,” Sharon said.

The sun sank to the horizon as Adrian used the forklift to hoist the last bale into the air and onto the truck. Finally, their work was done. The sun set on the day and on another tobacco season.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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