SAXE, VA — It’s been several years since the Clowdis brothers raised tobacco — and this year was the first time they grew organic tobacco — but Zach and Rob are glad to be growing leaf again.
“I like it,” said Zach. “We used to raise dark tobacco. Organic is more labor intensive — everything has to be hand-pulled — and there’s a whole lot more paperwork.”
“We never used the bunk barns before,” said Rob. “We’re still learning.”
Knowing when to adjust the temperatures in a curing barn — not letting it get too cold and sweat, not letting it get too hot and scald — “takes a while getting used to,” Zach said. “I go more by feel than anything.”
The brothers’ most reliable help this year has been their father, Robert.
“Help is hard to find,” Zach said, “and when you’ve only got three people, it takes time.”
This year the Clowdises grew 13 acres of organic tobacco. They had a contract with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco. Next year, they hope to grow 35 to 40 acres of organic tobacco, which will require much more help. They are looking to bring in migrant labor.
With organic tobacco, you can’t use MH to control suckers. But there is an effective organic alternative, O-TAC. For weed control and pest control, though, there aren’t suitable replacement organic products, which means using cultural practices (plowing) and tolerating insect damage.
“You can’t really do nothing to control aphids,” said Rob.
In addition to tobacco, the brothers also raise grain — soybeans, (mostly late-group 5 but also some later group 4 and early group 6 beans), sorghum and wheat.
When the brothers partnered five years ago to farm together, they farmed 400 acres of beans. Today they are up to 1,350 acres of beans, on their home farm here as well as rental parcels elsewhere in Charlotte County as well as in Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties.
The brother’s first year farming together, they grew two acres of dark tobacco, stripping leaves in their father’s garage.
Now they’ve invested in two curing barns, and plan to buy several more next year.
In addition to crop farming, the Clowdises also have a cow-calf operation and grow potatoes and sweet corn for a local farmers market, cultivating their potato rows with a Farmall 140.
“The vegetables are another little piece of the puzzle,” said Robert. “The whole goal is to have money coming in all times of the year: tobacco from August to October, beans and milo in November and December, wheat in June and July and produce in mid-summer. In the dead of winter we’ll push snow, and in the spring, build fence. You can’t be a one-trick pony.”
“You’ve got to be a jack of all-trades,” Rob added.
In this part of central Virginia, due to the soil and weather patterns, growing highland corn isn’t widely practiced. That’s why the Clowdises grow sorghum, which is much more heat and drought-tolerant. They sell their sorghum to Murphy-Brown in Waverly.
The brothers looked into raising hogs themselves but the shape of their home farm didn’t quite meet the local regulations.
“For young ones,” Robert said, “it’s a hard row to hoe.”
“All of it’s been a get-started operation,” he added, “buying new-used equipment. We’re learning every day.”
“It seems like it’s going to be okay,” said Rob.