A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Deep roots on family’s Claryville farm helped Flairty brothers nurture seeds of success

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

I feel comfortable being around Kentucky’s rural people, particularly those from farming communities. And though I’d probably currently be considered a suburbanite, I grew up rural and our family was, at least, part-time farmers on a plot of land with three-plus acres.

My Dad was a full-time wholesale ice cream truck driver for Clover Leaf Dairy, based in Ft. Thomas and Mom cleaned houses on the side for extra income. Despite those jobs outside the home, it sure seemed like farming and chores were full-time endeavors for this kid.

As a child and into adolescence, I had to be pushed, pulled and dragged into the agrarian lifestyle. Wendell Berry — even if he had been a children’s author—would not have been on the menu of my robust reading appetite at the time. (Wendell’s a favorite today, though).

We raised a tobacco crop on our acreage in Claryville and sharecropped with another local farmer. For most of those years, we tended about an acre and a half. I was part of the labor-intensive process, but I mostly wasn’t intense, often going through the motions and, at times, taking shortcuts. I had plenty of energy—not a lazy kid–but just wasn’t interested in the subject matter, you might say.

The Flairty farm in Claryville in the late 1960s. (Photo provided)

On a day while hoeing the young plants to take out weeds and break down the crusty soil, I accidentally cut down several plants. It was a sheer lack of focus. Fearing Dad’s disapproval, I nonsensically jabbed each plant back into the soil, hoping my father would inspect the work soon before the plants wilted into oblivion. Well, he inspected later than sooner. My sins found me out.

Ironically, the “resetting” plants phase where we looked for open spots in the rows to replace dead tobacco was something I didn’t mind, especially when the ground was muddy; I went barefoot and it was fun. No watering was needed; I simply poked a hole into the mud with a stick or hand trial, dropped the plant in, pressed the earth down and enjoyed the feel of my feet in touch with the ground.

Our creek ran next to the field where it provided water using Dad’s nondescript pump to push the flow through aluminum pipes (attachable sections of pipes) and onto the field where it provided irrigation. Connecting the fairly light but cumbersome pipes by hand, each about 20-feet long, was another hot summer job I dreaded, and I think my younger brother, Mike, did too. Naturally, I didn’t mind seeing it rain; it saved us from the irrigation chore, but it also meant less playtime outside, which was already limited.

As the tobacco matured, the bottom leaves tended to go brown in color and sometimes fell off the stalk. That meant the leaves, which potentially could be sold at the tobacco warehouse, would rot away on the ground and thus not be available at market time. Our Claryville remedy for the situation was to “prime” the leaves, meaning to walk hunch-backed—or sometimes crawl—through the rows with a canopy of leaves standing above and around us while we picked off the most fragile, soon-to-fall leaves, along with the ones that only recently fell to the ground. It was hard, dirty work, and when done in the early mornings it meant being a wet mess from the dew on the leaves settling on our shirts and pants. It was honest work; I’m now glad I experienced it, but I never enjoyed it. To be fair, Dad let us keep the $100 or so proceeds it brought, and Mike and I split the money—not bad dollars for life in the 1960s for two pre-adolescent kids.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

And then there was the “suckering” chore, where one walked the rows and hand-pulled small, green, and ultra-gummy suckers (looked like a small plant) which grew between the leaves out of the stalks. And yes, early morning suckering meant more wet clothing and worse, a thick covering of dark gum on the hands which took hard washing with warm water and soap to remove. Not fun.

And though you might detect a small bit of body language negativity from me at the time, I seldom complained to my parents. I knew better.

We “stripped,” or pulled off the cured, brownish-colored tobacco leaves in the late fall and occasionally didn’t finish until early winter. It was the last step before transporting the crop to market, either in Cynthiana or in later years, Erlanger. Don’t get me started, but I had about as much interest in stripping tobacco as a duck likes to take long walks in the desert. A long and narrow gas-heated room was the place we spent hours toiling. Dust loomed as a serious issue; I coughed quite a bit and sometimes I briefly stepped outside to get fresh air. We composted our spent stalks on the fields, and I made a game of it by throwing them like spears off the wagon and hoping they might stick in the ground. As long as it didn’t take too much precious time, Dad was OK with it.

We had a large vegetable garden, too, and Mom provided most of the managing of it because Dad was busy away at his job. We picked the veggies continually, depending on the time they were ready — baskets of green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, corn, onions, and plenty of other veggies. Again, I failed to embrace the whole farming thing but didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Through the summer, however, Mom prepared daily feasts from the produce, with corn-on-the-cob being my favorite. I probably took those meals for granted at the time.

And, oh, the shortcuts I took as a reluctant farmer; call them “manufactured” distractions if you wish. Bathroom breaks (not “behind the bush” types but heading to the house ones) came more frequently, tsk, tsk. Especially during stripping tobacco time on school nights, I often had “more than a usual amount of homework,” so sometimes begged off a little early to go back to the house.

Then there was the infamous swimming distraction, the day when I got a little too relaxed from my fieldwork on a hot day. Thinking back, I’m surprised I did such a thing. Working near the creek, I saw a pair of cutoff jean shorts laying on the ground. Seems that someone had been taking a dip in good ol’ Pond Creek and I figured I just might do the same, figuring that a few minutes to cool off would make me a better farmhand. Tsk, tsk, again (Dad was away on his job). So, I peeled the cutoffs off the ground, as they apparently had been somewhat beaten down by the rain over time. Best I recall, I hid in between rows of mature tobacco plants, got out of my work clothes, and slipped into the cutoffs, ready to enjoy the cool water.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Within seconds, I felt the needle-like jabs of a legion of red ants around my loins. I guess the ants liked the security of living around denim and resented the rude intrusion into their lives. Additionally, for me, it was like a lightning bolt from God’s heaven that my action was wrong, and I needed to be duly punished. Of course, I was young then, probably 13 or 14, and no long-term damage WAS done from my “distraction”… just memories that I can write about today. But I digress.

A lot has happened since those early years in Claryville. The work ethic instilled in me then has stuck solid. Sometimes I find it difficult NOT to be doing something that is productive, even if rest and recreation can also be construed as productive. And for a long time, the farming life continued not to appeal to me. But today, my “farming” means a lot to me. My wife and I have an acre lot with our house. We grow flowers, vegetables, and I spend a lot of time carefully tending our yard. It’s a kind of agriculture, indeed, and something I embrace. The whole process is a positive distraction that I don’t actually consider work, though I spend hours involved in it.

The Flairty family tobacco and vegetable crops insured that Mike and I received college educations, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Any success in life I’ve had owes much to those farming times of my youth.

All it took was being “pushed, pulled, and dragged” through the process.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment