06/01/04 — Tobacco film recalls early days

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Tobacco film recalls early days

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on June 1, 2004 1:57 PM

FREMONT -- Tobacco farming has left filmmaker Cynthia Hill a lot of fond memories --and some conflict.

The Pink Hill native, who now lives in Durham in a converted tobacco warehouse, knows that tobacco is a product that sickens and kills.

She also knows that it is a legal crop that has provided many families with their livelihood for generations.

As a child, she helped family and friends with their crops. She would get up early in the morning, go out into the fields while they were still wet with dew, and be there long after the heat had dried the wetness and dirt into a black gum that stayed on her for the rest of the day.

It was hard, hot work, but also fun work that helped establish stronger bonds between those who farmed.

Now, tobacco farmers are facing challenges. Lower quotas from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are dramatically reducing the income they receive, and finding another crop that will sustain them is difficult.

Ms. Hill takes a look at the farming life and the conflicts about tobacco farming in her documentary, "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family." The film will be shown at the Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace State Historic Site on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the visitor's center. Refreshments will be served at 6:30. Admission is free.

After the screening, Ms. Hill will be part of a panel that will answer questions from the audience. Other panel members scheduled to attend are Dr. LuAnn Jones, an East Carolina University history professor; Melinda Maynor, a UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student; and Melvin Croom, a retired farmer featured in the film.

Why do this film?

"I grew up farming tobacco," she says. "It is basically a crop that shaped my life and my community."

In addition, she hopes it will enable people to understand the farmers' situation.

Ms. Hill worked in tobacco from the mid-1970s until leaving Pink Hill in 1988.

In her film, she discusses her experiences, but mainly focuses on three farmers: Croom, a Kinston tenant farmer who worked 20 acres until health problems caused him to retire; Willie Marvin Allen, a Creedmoor sharecropper who works five acres but realizes the end of his farming days are fast approaching; and Ernie Averett, an Oxford farmer who owns 90 acres of tobacco and successfully campaigns to be a commissioner so there will be someone to represent the farmers in county government.

In the film the men talk about their love for farming, the challenges it presents and their thoughts about the future. Filmed over the course of about four years, it shows Croom having to work part time in a funeral home to supplement his income. He then faces having to retire from the farming he loves because a series of mini-strokes have made it impossible for him to work outdoors in the heat of summer.

It shows Allen's pride in his knowledge of farming and his contemplation about the future after he has had to under go surgery.

It shows Averett's wife holding a young son in her arms as Averett questions whether his son will have the option of being the family's ninth-generation farmer.

And it shows Ms. Hill's concern as she discusses her sister's smoking and how it may affect her health.

Ms. Hill poses the question: If farmers in the U.S. stopped growing tobacco, would it stop people from smoking? In the film, Averett says that the United States grows about 8 to 9 percent of the world's tobacco.

The film shows a variety of farming methods, from Allen's old-style equipment to greenhouse farming where the plants are put in panels and floated on water.

The film's audience sees blacks and whites working together and listens to an interview with Hispanic workers who have replaced the younger generation that no longer wants to work in the fields. After the workers have answered some questions about why they do this, they ask one: Before they came, who did the work?

Ms. Hill wants people to understand what tobacco farming means to people.

"It's not just economical," she said in a recent interview at Aycock Birthplace. "There's a sense of place, a heritage that ties you to this commodity more than other crops."

Though the love for farming remains, much has changed. The film Ms. Hill made to teach others also taught her.

"When I started making the film, I thought I would find what I left, but I didn't," she said. "I found glimpses of it, but those are fading as well."

This is Ms. Hill's second documentary. She was co-producer of "February 1," about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, and is working on a documentary about the guest worker program, in which people are brought in from Mexico to work on the farm.

Ms. Hill's presentation at Aycock Birthplace is part of the Tobacco County Tour, which is sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund. The fund supports the work of local filmmakers. Its money comes from the N.C. Humanities Council, the N.C. Arts Council and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.