Hidden in the fields they harvest

Posted: 2/26/2019

By John Feister

Many of us don’t think a lot about tobacco anymore. US farms now grow only 5% of the 16 million tons of tobacco produced worldwide. But that’s still a lot of tobacco, hundreds of thousands of tons annually. In some Glenmary areas, tobacco is still a key part of the agricultural economy. 

It’s a tough business, with a lot of manual labor. Ask Glenmary Father Vic Subb, who is serving missions in Macon and Clay counties in Tennessee. Father Vic, in his parish ministry, serves not only permanent residents of the counties, some of whom are Catholic, but also the transient, Latin American  tobacco workers. Almost all of them are Catholic.

These tobacco workers come to the US on work visas for some months each year, leaving young children and extended families back home. They are willing to work long hours, hard and fast, for about $10 per hour (about $1,600 per month for the harvest season). Low wages here, this is great money back home. But it comes at great personal cost.

Father Vic describes some of the hardships. “It’s a long list,” he says, starting with the isolation of the men. “They live in work camps on the tobacco farms, far away from town. Once a week a van comes by and drives them in to the local Wal-Mart for whatever supplies they might need.” 

Tobacco farming can be toxic, he says. “By the end of the day, it’s not uncommon for men to have their arms and upper bodies covered with toxic nicotine from cutting the tobacco plants. Many of the men become sick to their stomach during the day.” Some even are sick at night, but there is no medical care. “That lack of medical care is an even worse problem if someone falls ill for any reason other than injury on the job. ‘It’s not my problem,’ some farm owners say,” Father Vic reports, even though the workers are isolated from help by their living on the farm, without transportion. 

Father Vic visits the camps and tries to serve the workers’ needs, physical as well as spiritual. He gives rides, counsels workers, he celebrates Eucharist at their camp.

I met Father Vic for breakfast one morning with David, a young tobacco worker. Father Vic was transporting him to the airport at season’s end. David, age 22, showed me cell-phone photos of his wife and child. Then he proudly played for me a video of men harvesting tobacco. One man rapidly hacks the plants free with a machete as another hoists plants up onto a cart, where a third worker hangs the plants for transport. It’s a maddening pace that goes from morning till dusk.

In limited English, David tells me, “We are very grateful for Father Vic.” But mostly he has been quiet over breakfast with English-speaking people. It’s one of the challenges of being far from home.

“We all are the Body of Christ,” says Father Vic. “I feel that we’re bringing a Catholic presence to our  areas when we reach out to everybody—even, maybe even especially, to these Catholics who are among us for part of the year.” That’s a big-hearted, Glenmary approach.

 

This story first appeared in the February Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.