Tobacco is cultivated similarly to other agricultural products. Seeds were at first quickly scattered onto the soil. However, young plants came under increasing attack from flea beetles (Epitrix cucumeris or Epitrix pubescens), which caused destruction of half the tobacco crops in United States in 1876. By 1890, successful experiments were conducted that placed the plant in a frame covered by thin cotton fabric. Today, tobacco is sown in cold frames or hotbeds, as their germination is activated by light.
In the United States, tobacco is often fertilized with the mineral apatite, which partially starves the plant of nitrogen, to produce a more desired flavor.
After the plants are about eight inches tall, they are transplanted into the fields. Farmers used to have to wait for rainy weather to plant. A hole is created in the tilled earth with a tobacco peg, either a curved wooden tool or deer antler. After making two holes to the right and left, the planter would move forward two feet, select plants from his/her bag, and repeat. Various mechanical tobacco planters like Bemis, New Idea Setter, and New Holland Transplanter were invented in the late 19th and 20th centuries to automate the process: making the hole, watering it, guiding the plant in — all in one motion.
Tobacco is cultivated annually, and can be harvested in several ways. In the oldest method still used today, the entire plant is harvested at once by cutting off the stalk at the ground with a tobacco knife. It is then speared onto sticks, four to six plants a stick and hung in a curing barn. In the 19th century, bright tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco harvested in this manner will involve the serial harvest of a number of “primings,” beginning with the volado leaves near the ground, working to the seco leaves in the middle of the plant, and finishing with the potent ligero leaves at the top. Before this the crop needs to be topped when the pink flowers develop. Topping always refers to the removal of the tobacco flower before the leaves are systematically removed and, eventually, entirely harvested. As the industrial revolution took hold, harvesting wagons used to transport leaves were equipped with man-powered stringers, an apparatus that used twine to attach leaves to a pole. In modern times, large fields are harvested mechanically, although topping the flower and in some cases the plucking of immature leaves is still done by hand. Most tobacco in the U.S. is grown in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.