Chapter 12: Breaking the Dependency on Tobacco Production

When I was 18, I picked tobacco in Tillsonburg, southern Ontario, setting aside money for university in Montreal that fall. I later took a creative writing course at the university with Clarke Blaise, a well-known Canadian-American writer of short fiction. He encouraged me to write from my experience, which I did for my first assignment. This is how it started.

The sun slowly evaporated the dew off the tobacco leaves. The feeler of the picking machine bounced and groped its way between the rows. The four seats and the four pickers remained just the right distance from the plants. I leaned back against the steel seat as we skimmed along the ground. My arms became shiny wet with plant juices, and flecked with sticky sand.

"Export A,” by Danny Buckles (1974)

The story was published in the student magazine, the only fiction I ever wrote that made it into print. It was prescient, however, in a personal way. While a coming of age tale featuring a girl and an awkward attempt to connect, it included an account of a mysterious illness I experienced in real life on the tobacco farm: nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Without realizing it at the time, the symptoms match what is known as “green tobacco sickness,” a widespread occupational health problem among tobacco workers caused by exposure to nicotine through the skin. The plant juices on warm wet skin bring the water soluble chemical directly into the blood stream.
Many years later, I learned the details of the illness through work with Farida Akhter and a team of remarkable people in several regions of Bangladesh where tobacco farming is common. I came to understand that tobacco farmers are as dependent on tobacco as smokers of the final product. Debt to the tobacco companies, and the seductive appeal of the incentives they offer, bind tobacco farmers to an industrial mono-crop that depletes soils, denudes forested hillsides and compromises the health of field workers and the women and children curing the tobacco leaves. Many tobacco farmers, especially older ones who have seen the impacts on their families and on their land, are desperate to shift into other livelihoods, but don’t know how.

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