Down in the Old Belt
Article Images (Click for larger view)
A new documentary about tobacco farmers in the U.S. Old Belt growing region paints a colorful picture of tobacco-farming culture.
Jim Crawford didn’t know what lay in store for him when he became interested in the culture of tobacco farming and began interviewing tobacco farmers and their families near his home in Roanoke, Va. He began the project as an effort to document a collection of oral histories exploring the culture of tobacco farming in southern Virginia. As he began to get to know the farmers and their families, he decided that they had important stories to tell, and he would be the one to get these stories to a wider audience.
Crawford thought that a documentary film would be the proper medium to bring these stories to life. The only problem: he had virtually no knowledge of how to undertake such a project. At the time, he was a cultural geographer and an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Undaunted by his lack of experience in both farming and filmmaking, Crawford plunged into his research and began learning everything he could about making documentaries and the tobacco-growing culture.
Seven years later, after making over 200 trips to southern Virginia and collecting extensive histories of 26 tobacco-farming families in the region, the resulting film, “Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the Tobacco South,” has been met with acclaim from tobacco farmers and wider audiences alike.
From the founding of Jamestown, Va., to the buyout, the film traces the history and culture of tobacco in the Old Belt of Virginia and northern North Carolina. Based on interviews and oral histories of 26 Old Belt tobacco-farming families, and numerous interviews with local historians, anthropologists, politicians and warehouse owners, the documentary reveals, as the film’s promotional material film promises, “tobacco’s historic decline in context to the land and its farming people.”
The film begins with the founding of Jamestown and documents tobacco’s influence in founding the colony of Virginia. Taking viewers through the growth of bright-leaf production in the region through the 1800s, Crawford explores the sharecropping system that arose after the Civil War.
After agricultural prices collapsed in the 1930s, the U.S. government created the quota system. Tobacco production in the region continued to increase because the profits were much higher than many other crops. As cigarette consumption surged, tobacco production followed suit—two billion pounds were grown and sold in 1946. It was a relatively prosperous time for farmers. The film captures the excitement of the National Tobacco Festival held annually in South Boston, Va., from 1936 to 1941, and includes a present-day interview with a former “Lady Nicotine” from the festival.
Crawford’s film also explains the history of the auction chant and includes clips from auctions in the area. With the increase of contracts, changes overtook the auction system, and hand-held computers replaced the chants.
As quotas were cut in the late 1990s, the end of an era was apparent. By 2003, the U.S. had slipped from first to fourth in the world market, and the buyout was signed into law in 2004. “Down in the Old Belt” traces these changes as well as the concurrent emotional and cultural upheaval experienced by the farmers.
In addition to writing, producing and directing the film, Crawford recorded and arranged the music for the film’s soundtrack, using musicians from the region, including himself. He composed six of the soundtrack’s songs.
After putting so much work into making the film, Crawford wondered if he captured the lives and perspectives of the farmers accurately. To his relief, the film received standing ovations at its November 2005 premiers in Danville, Va., and Roanoke, Va. Much of the audience was made up of local growers and their families. Later screenings attracted crowds that left only standing room in theaters.
Crawford says many farmers have thanked him for his efforts to document their stories. “I was a bit nervous as to the reactions,” Crawford says. “After all, it was their culture I was trying to capture. Their responses have been so warm, thankful and complementary.”
The rapid changes to the industry made making the film a challenge, he says. “When I first started, [the farmers] had just had a quota cut, and the outlook didn’t look good. But the culture was still intact. Over the next few years, the changes became very dramatic, and what people had said earlier also changed dramatically. Their concerns had shifted … I’ve told many people it was like making a film about a train wreck because things were changing so rapidly.”
He says he learned that some farmers will still be able to make a living farming tobacco, “but you can still feel the culture of the past changing.”
Crawford is currently working with Virginia State Senator Charles Hawkins and Congressman Virgil Goode to get an effort going to get the film broadcast at a national level. “We believe the country would do well to see it. That would be the ideal realization for the film,” says Crawford. “Believe me though, it has been worth the eight years’ effort to have it play to tobacco farmers and see them so appreciative, because I have respect for their culture, and that respect comes through the film ….
“It was very overwhelming to me that they allowed me into their lives. They were very honest, and with that comes a responsibility to be careful that anything I learned wouldn’t be misused … The film doesn’t pull any punches. I tried to be as unbiased as I could … Farmers, black and white, large and small, have all told me that they appreciate me telling the truth.
“The whole process was very fulfilling.”
Crawford also plans to write and publish a book of photographs along with some oral histories from “Down in the Old Belt.” Crawford would like to hear about more tobacco farmers’ memories, farm stories and histories. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.