William S. Humphries oral history interview, March 27, 1974

William S. Humphries
Farm editor of the Raleigh News & Observer and present food and agricultural news editor in the Department of Agricultural Information at the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, North Carolina State University
March 27, 1974

John Ellen:

Thank you, Don. It looks like we’re well under way. These two major acquisitions in the last few days have certainly lightened our load considerably after six or eight months of not being able to break the ice [01:31] in certain areas. We certainly are delighted with these acquisitions.

Our speaker for this luncheon needs no introduction to tobacco people or agriculturalists in this state or in the adjoining states, certainly. He appeared on our [01:58] last year, at that time as a member of the fourth estate rather than on the program specifically, and we are very glad to welcome him back today as a member of our program as our luncheon speaker. Now Bill Humphries is a North Carolinian, of course. He was born in Woodsdale, North Carolina, a Wake Forest graduate, and he taught in the public schools. He has been the editor of newspapers of varying sizes and with the North

Carolina Agricultural Extension Service in the years right after World War II. Of course he served in the army of the United States during World War II, as did a number of us [fellows]. He was decorated with the Purple Heart, well earned, I’m certain, has been the recipient of awards in the areas of farm education, distinguished alumni award from Wake Forest University, his alma mater. He’s president of the Newspaper Farmers Association of America and of the North Carolina Farm Writers Association over a period of two years there, and was the state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1949, 1950. Bill over a number of years was co-editor of the magazine Tobacco Reporter and contributed to all kinds of farm magazines and publications over a period of more than twenty years at least. For some twenty years he was the farm editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, with which we’re all well acquainted, whether we agree with Mr. Daniels’s paper or whether we don’t on various occasions. Last summer and fall he broke away from the newspaper and returned to the academic world, at least in part, by joining forces with North Carolina State University. At the present time he is the food and agricultural news editor for the Department of Agricultural Information of the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences. As such he is a teacher in part so he does some teaching. His big job there is trying to reach the urban public as an audience and interpret for them what is going on in agriculture. He now has a Sunday feature called “Agra Consumer,” which he’s working on very diligently. Sounds very impressive, doesn’t it? However I think to all of us that have known him over the years, either personally or through his writings, he will always be Bill Humphries, farm observer. Mr. Humphries. [Applause]

William Humphries:

Thank you, Dr. Ellen. Where on earth did you get all that information? It’s more than I knew about myself even.

John Ellen:

I must admit there were some mistakes in Who’s Who in the South and Southwest, typographical mistakes. I’m sure they weren’t yours.

William Humphries:

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be with you, to be back with you again this year, and I appreciate the opportunity to appear on this program. I will start by telling a little story which happens to contain the name of a cigarette brand, but that’s only a coincidence. I’m not trying to promote any particular brand. Mr. Robin went out of town on a business trip, came home, and looked in the nest and lo and behold there was a strange looking egg. He turned to Mrs. Robin and said, “What on earth is going on here?” Mrs. Robin said, “Nothing to get excited about. I just did it for a lark.” [Laughter]

Anyway, I bring you greetings from the land of the Wolfpack, the number one basketball team in the nation. [Applause]

John Ellen:

You didn’t notice my tie, Bill?

William Humphries:

That’s great.

John Ellen:

It says “number one” all over it. [Laughter]

William Humphries:

That’s great. It would look better in red, though, John. [Laughter]

John Ellen:

My eight- and three-year-old daughters gave me that at Christmas so I can’t boast of being a Wolfpack supporter, I’m afraid, at the moment, not with the tie anyway.

William Humphries:

William Humphries: By way of background, let me say that I was born within one hundred yards of a tobacco patch on the farm of my parents in Person County, North Carolina, in what is known as the Bethel Hill community, and I suppose you could call this the cradle of the bright belt tobacco industry. This was a part of the old bright belt. We could stand in our front yard and look northward to the next large hill and see a neighbor’s farm in the state of Virginia. Within a few miles were such places as Mayo, Virginia, Hyco, Virginia, Cluster Springs, Virginia, and within a radius of thirty or forty miles were such well known tobacco towns as Roxboro, Oxford, and Durham, as well as Milton, all on the Carolina side, and Danville and South Boston on the Virginia side of the border. We raised bright leaf tobacco, as much as twenty-two acres a year since there were six boys in the family, and sold most of it in South Boston, Danville, and Roxboro. Well do I remember making trips with my father and some of my brothers to take loads of tobacco by wagon at night to South Boston about fifteen miles away, and of course it took the better part of the night to get there and then we had to try to get some rest in the warehouse while waiting for sale time to come. I don’t remember the old Tri-state Tobacco marketing co-op and its functions but after it ceased functioning I do remember distinctly hearing my dad sing many times a little ditty, and strangely enough I think this is one that even Dr. Tilley missed. I haven’t seen any reference to this anywhere but I remember it so vividly and it made such an impression on me at the time that I want to share it with you: “Boll weevils got my cotton, corn worms got my corn, co-ops got my money, and down the road I’m gone.” [Laughter]

During the harvest years of the big Depression we often sold entire loads of tobacco, in fact entire crops, for as little as five, six, or seven cents a pound. In those

days we burned off our plant bed sites each year to kill the weed seeds, the insects, and the disease organisms in the soil. The blue mold as a disease appeared in the early 1930s and thereafter was a constant menace, almost creating panic in our community and across our part of the state. We transplanted the tender young seedlings with short wooden pegs, only six or seven inches long, and my back still aches at the memory [Laughter] of those days. We used mules in cultivating, topped and suckered by hand, and followed the old laborious time consuming methods of harvesting. Of course we used wood as fuel for curing, and this meant someone had to get up several times during the night to keep the fires going. If those were the good old days, all I can say is that I’m glad they’re gone forever. [Laughter]

Sometimes we dusted our tobacco fields to protect the crop from insects. Mostly though, we kept the perennial horn worms under control by walking the fields and inspecting each plant and each leaf, underside and top side, for worms. Any that we found were promptly destroyed. My father had a simple formula to ensure that we inspected each plant thoroughly for worms. He said he would spot check behind us and if he found a live worm whoever had overlooked the pest would have to eat it. [Laughter] As far as I know the threat was never carried out but we believed that it might be.

The 1973 U.S. flue-cured tobacco crop was the first in history to bring farmers more than a billion dollars. North Carolina growers, who produce about two thirds of the nation’s bright leaf, received a record-breaking seven hundred million dollars from their sales. Cash receipts by growers in Pitt County alone, the county in which Greenville is located and in which we’re meeting today, cash receipts by tobacco growers in this county alone last year amounted to forty million dollars, a figure unequaled by any other

county in the entire bright belt region. It is worth noting, I think, that all ten leading bright leaf producing counties in the state are in the eastern half of North Carolina and most are in the type twelve eastern belt. In addition to Pitt the other nine leading counties in order are: Johnston County--these are 1973 estimated sales figures on the basis of estimates by county extension agents--Johnston County, thirty-six million dollars; Robeson County, thirty-three point four million; Columbus, twenty-nine point three; Wilson, twenty-eight million; Nash, twenty-seven point eight; Wake County, in which Raleigh is located and which many people think of as being an urban county, tobacco farmers in that county received twenty-seven million dollars for their crop last year; Sampson County, twenty-five point three million dollars; Wayne County, twenty-four point eight million; and Harnett County, twenty-two point eight million. The total for these ten leading counties alone amounted to almost two hundred and ninety-five million dollars, and that is a heck of a lot of money.

Sales on the seventeen markets of the eastern belt last year exceeded three hundred million dollars in value. They approximated, I believe, three hundred and twenty million or thereabouts. These markets are Ahoskie, Clinton, Durham, Farmville, Goldsboro, Greenville, Kinston, Robersonville, Rocky Mount, Smithfield, Tarboro, Wallace, Washington, Wendell, Williamston, Wilson, and Windsor.

From the economic standpoint the impact of tobacco on North Carolina towns can be summed up in just one word: tremendous. Durham and Winston-Salem, as you know, came into being as centers of tobacco manufacturing and tobacco still contributes heavily to their economic life. About twenty years ago a speaker at the North Carolina Farm Press Institute in Raleigh made the statement that without tobacco Rocky Mount would simply dry up. He could have said the same thing about many other towns and cities across the coastal plain and in the Carolina Piedmont. Tobacco farmers, like city people, spend their net profit, if any, or their take-home pay, for such things as houses, automobiles, appliances, television sets, food, clothing and recreation. In addition though, farmers today have heavy capital investments and heavy cash operating expenses in producing their crops and their livestock. Since 1970 in fact the production expenses of the operators of North Carolina’s one hundred and thirty-five thousand farms have exceeded one billion dollars a year. Fertilizer and lime alone take about a hundred million dollars a year. Seed takes twenty-five million. Tractors and equipment, fuel, hired labor, taxes, interest on the farm mortgage debt, and similar items require a big outflow of dollars from farm to city. Not to be overlooked is the fact that tobacco provides employment for thousands of seasonal or full time workers in processing and manufacturing plants in various parts of the state.

As has already been mentioned about ninety-five percent of U.S. bright leaf goes into the manufacture of cigarettes. Durham, Greensboro, Reidsville, and Winston-Salem are the four cities where cigarettes are made in this state and their production represents over fifty-five percent of the national output. In just fifty years, from 1900 to 1950, the value of tobacco commodities in North Carolina at the manufacturer’s level skyrocketed from a mere sixteen million dollars to almost one point three billion dollars, and of course today the total is much larger. The growth of the tobacco industry, as someone has noted, brought wealth, a new leisure, and social progress in North Carolina. The entire state has been enriched by endowments to universities, church organizations, medical schools, children’s homes, and other worthy causes. Over the years it has been fairly easy to

distinguish the tobacco towns in eastern North Carolina because traditionally they have been the ones with the finest homes, the finest church buildings, the finest hospitals and schools.

Even in 1973 when cotton prices reached the highest level since the Civil War an acre of cotton grossed the farmer only about two hundred and fifty dollars or so. Although it was a record year also for peanuts the per-acre returns from this crop were around four hundred and fifty dollars. And what about bright leaf tobacco? Last year the average grower received a gross return of about eighteen hundred dollars an acre, and many exceeded two thousand dollars per acre. To paraphrase a cigarette ad of a few years ago, no other major field crop can make that statement or equal that record in terms of gross dollars per acre.

Only ten of North Carolina’s one hundred counties do not grow tobacco, either flue-cured or burley. In 1960 tobacco accounted for forty-four percent of the state’s total cash farm income. Last year the proportion was thirty-one point five percent, but this does not mean that tobacco income is slipping, on the contrary it set an all-time record, but it does mean that farmers of the Tarheel state, by maintaining and increasing their tobacco income, have also been expanding their other enterprises. Here in Pitt County, for example, the value of the corn crop has risen sharply from three point six million in 1971 to fourteen point seven million dollars last year. Income from hogs in Pitt County rose from three point six million dollars two years ago to eight and a half million dollars last year. Other crop and livestock enterprises also showed gains. In fact in 1973 for the first time in many years the farmers of Pitt County received more money from other enterprises than they did from tobacco even though Pitt is the leading tobacco county in

the bright leaf area. The totals were forty million dollars for tobacco and forty-four point six million from other crops and from livestock. To repeat, this is not a sign that tobacco is declining but that other enterprises are being expanded.

It is well known that North Carolina is a state of small farms, the average farm being only slightly over one hundred acres in size compared with the national average of about three hundred eighty-five acres. The people who originally settled Carolina were not aristocratic landed gentry with large plantation holdings, as in Tidewater Virginia. Instead they were common, everyday people who loved liberty and had an independent spirit, and with rare exceptions their landholdings were modest. The tobacco acreage allotment program, started in the 1930s, tended to reinforce and perpetuate the small farm structure of the state’s agriculture. By 1960 the average allotment for bright tobacco was only about three and a half acres, and even today it is not much larger than that. Beginning in the 1960s, however, release and transfer of acreage allotments from one tobacco farm to another in the same county was permitted, first for just one year and later for as long as five years. Of the state’s one hundred and fourteen thousand farms holding flue-cured tobacco allotments, last year more than fifty-one thousand, or about forty-five percent, leased out allotments to other farms. Because of lease and transfer the average North Carolina tobacco farmer today has an operation that is twenty acres or larger in size and the size of these operations is going to get bigger and bigger as more mechanization is adopted.

In 1971 there were just three mechanical harvesters in use on a commercial basis on North Carolina tobacco farms. Last year there were about three hundred and the number is expected to approach one thousand by harvest time this summer. Bulk curing

barns in use were estimated at eighty-eight hundred last year and the total this year will exceed ten thousand. For many years the labor required to grow and harvest bright tobacco amounted to about four hundred and forty man hours per acre. That figure has been greatly reduced through innovations in transplanting and cultivating, use of chemicals to control weeds, grass, suckers, and insects, and new harvesting, curing and marketing methods. The sewing machine type looper, developed in Ontario, gained widespread adoption in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The switch during the 1960s from marketing in hands or bundles to the loose leaf system eliminated the need for as much as thirty-six million man hours of labor per year, this just in North Carolina alone.

Largely as a result of these innovations and the gradual reduction in tobacco labor needs the number of family and hired workers on North Carolina farms has been declining over the past fifteen years at the rate of sixteen thousand workers a year. Since 1957, in other words, nearly a quarter million workers have left Tarheel farms, and what has happened to these people? Some have migrated to other regions, but many thousands of them have remained in the state and found jobs in new industries. Many of these new industries in fact have been attracted to North Carolina by the large reserve supply of trainable labor moving off the state’s tobacco farms, and two notable examples of this right here in the Greenville area are the Eaton Corp. and the Procter & Gamble potato chip plant. In a sense then it can be said that the delay in full mechanization of tobacco and the gradual adoption of new technology have enabled North Carolina to hold in reserve a supply of labor that is increasingly needed for new industries now being developed.

From the very beginning of the commercial development of tobacco by John Rolfe at Jamestown in 1612 tobacco has rated high as an export commodity. Today nearly one half the annual bright leaf crop is sold abroad either in processed strip or leaf form or as manufactured products. Without export markets flue-cured growers would have to cut back their production by nearly fifty percent. As a result these growers are internationalists rather than isolationists in their views. They knew about the European Common Market long before most American farmers or the American public generally knew that anything of this nature was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Thanks largely to the leadership of the late J.B. Hudson, president of Tobacco Associates, North Carolina tobacco farmers and those in other states were kept well informed of developments every step of the way as the Common Market came into being and as it became a powerful force in the world economic community.

Tobacco farmers would like to see tariff and other barriers to international trade removed or minimized so that their commodity, which is so greatly in demand all around the globe, can move freely to customers who desire it. In this connection many of us who are close to the tobacco industry have watched with dismay as the European community has adopted increasingly restrictive measures discriminating against American tobacco. Tobacco export sales are important not only to the growers and the exporters and the industry; they make a tremendous contribution, several hundred million dollars a year, to the favorable side of the nation’s balance of payments position in world trade. Tobacco has helped strengthen the dollar abroad and has made it easier for us to continue buying Nikon cameras, Sony television sets, Volkswagens and Toyotas, and many, many other items produced in foreign countries.

In conclusion, my hometown newspaper for many years featured as its front-page slogan this simple statement: Sell your tobacco in Roxboro and we all will be benefited. For over three and a half centuries wherever tobacco has been sold it has brought economic and other benefits. Without the golden leaf, North Carolina, and eastern North Carolina in particular, would indeed be a poorer region. Thank you. [Applause]

John Ellen:

Bill, thank you very much. We’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Do you have a few questions? Any questions anybody would like to ask? We have just a few minutes. [31:53] I think he’s covered frankly the entire industry, as far as statistics are concerned, from the [family field] to the [tobacco industry] itself. This is all for the program then for the moment. At 2:30 the afternoon session will commence in the Allied Health Building [32:19]. Thank you very much. [Crowd noise and conversation from this point to the end]


Transcriber: Deborah Mitchum

Date: October 15, 2010

William S. Humphries oral history interview, March 27, 1974
Transcript of a lecture given by William S. Humphries, Farm editor of the Raleigh News & Observer and present food and agricultural news editor in the Department of Agricultural Information at the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, North Carolina State University. The second annual Tobacco History Symposium, held March 27, 1974. Introduction to the speaker by John Ellen. This is reel number two, side two, luncheon meeting, Ramada Inn.
March 27, 1974
Original Format
oral histories
Local Identifier
Location of Original
East Carolina Manuscript Collection
This item has been made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Researchers are responsible for using these materials in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and any other applicable statutes. If you are the creator or copyright holder of this item and would like it removed, please contact us at als_digitalcollections@ecu.edu.

Know Something About This Item?

Comment Policy