From the archives: Bucklesberry farmer offers tobacco camp

by Jon Dawson / Staff Writer

Last Friday was the last day of school for many children in our area. This influx of free-range children into the population means camp season is in full swing.

Many parents will send their children to camps that focus on sports, science or art. While the traditional summer camps are still among the most popular, a local farmer is offering something new.

“I call it tobacco camp,” said La Grange farmer Parrott Sutton. “For just $100 a week, you can bring your teenager out to our farm and we’ll give them an authentic tobacco harvesting experience, five days a week for the entire summer. As a bonus, if we end up having to put in a barn on a Saturday, there’s no additional charge to the campers.”

While many farmers switched to automated tobacco cropping systems many years ago, Sutton has felt little need to change with the times.

“We were on the verge of switching over to bulk tobacco barns two years ago,” Sutton said. “But then my grandson took me to an agri-tourism workshop that really opened my eyes. Apparently there are people willing to pay for the experience of working on a farm, whereas we do it to be able to eat and pay the light bill.”

Not wanting to cheat any of his campers of an authentic experience, Sutton sold off most of his modern equipment and reverted to using a two-story Silent Flame tobacco harvester and multi-tiered curing barns built during WWII.

“You can run an automatic cropper with just one guy, but that would limit the slots available at our camp,” Sutton said. “It takes about eight people to operate a Silent Flame harvester. Then you need two people to haul the tobacco to the barn and hang it. You also need a couple of guys in their late 80s/early 90s to sit in the shade and talk about how the young crowd doesn’t know what hard work really is. Lastly, you need a dog that magically appears and starts begging every morning around 9:30 when it’s Nab and Pepsi time – although we only charge the dog $50 per week to participate.”

According to Sutton, so many people signed up for his tobacco camp this year he hasn’t needed to hire any labor.

“We offered the tobacco camp for the first time in 2016,” Sutton said. “We only had three kids sign up that first year. Actually, the kids’ parents signed them up.”

One of Sutton’s 2016 campers was Michael Gagliano of Kinston.

“For years my parents sent me to music camp,” Gagliano said. “They claim it was a clerical error, but somehow last year they signed me up for tobacco camp. I had to be there every day at 6:30 a.m., and in the morning the leaves are covered in dew – and the leaves are the size of elephant ears. From the road they don’t look that big, but when you’re sitting in the harvester chair and it’s moving through the field those giant, wet leaves just slap you in the face no matter how far you try to lean out of the way. Those leaves slapped me in the head so often I felt like I was in a Three Stooges movie running at half-speed.”

When asked if their son’s tobacco camp experience was actually the result of a clerical error, Joe and Camille Gagliano only offered a series of guffaws before declining to comment.

“Not only did I learn how to harvest a crop, I learned that with proper motivation I could do anything,” Michael Gagliano said. “One morning I reached around a stalk to crop a few leaves and discovered a snake the size of a fire hose curled around it. I was a fairly sedentary kid, and previous to the snake encounter I couldn’t run from one side of the street to the other without stopping to catch my breath. The sight of that snake staring at me like I owed it money inspired me to not only jump from my seat, but to run like I’d never run before. It only felt like I’d been running for a few minutes, but when the trooper pulled me over I’d just crossed the Virginia state line.”

When asked if his uncle might be creeping into an ethical gray area by charging people to provide free labor for his farm, Gene Sutton answered without hesitation.

“Most of the people who sign up for our camp are of two ilks,” Sutton said. “It’s usually kids who need to experience hard work or hipsters who’ll spend $17 on a cup of coffee but illegally download music from the internet and use tweaked streaming devices to steal from Netflix. Our research suggests those who graduate from our camp will not only develop good enough sense to brew their own coffee at home, they’ll realize it’s wrong to take someone else’s work without paying for it. And don’t get me started on people who take 10-minutes to order a hamburger at a drive-thru window. What was the question again?”

Although Gene Sutton’s answer could be considered rambling by some and troubling by others, it does illuminate some of the unsavory aspects of modern society.

“I don’t know what Netflix is and anything beyond Sanka is just showing off,” Parrott Sutton said while writing out a receipt to a Golden Retriever named Nugget. “This tobacco camp is working out so well I’m gearing up for a gutter cleaning camp in the fall.”

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