PENHOOK — For Sharon Angell, 2018 was a year of uncertainty.

The lifelong tobacco farmer didn’t know if she’d ever plant another crop. She didn’t know what would happen to the land she and her husband, Johnny, who died last year, loved. She didn’t know if she’d ever see the crew of workers from Mexico, who had become like family after decades of working with the Angells.

This year, she finally got her answers.

Angell, 66, is still farming, though she planted only 35 acres this year, the smallest crop since she and Johnny began using temporary foreign labor through the federal government’s H-2A program in the late 1980s. In better days, the couple planted about 80 acres.

“It was easy in a way, because I’ve been doing it all my life and I’ve got to do something,” Angell said about continuing to farm. “But I had to think long and hard about how much I was going to have to put out as far as expense-wise.”

The tobacco was spread among several properties, some that Angell owns jointly with family and others owned by her siblings. A portion of it was planted on the 33-acre property Angell lives on, but no longer owns.

It’s been a tough year for tobacco. First there was excessive rain, then extreme heat. For a time, Angell didn’t know whether the tobacco would survive.

“It sit there for a long time trying to decide whether it was really going to make it or not,” she said.

But tobacco is resilient — just like the woman who grows it.

Finally, Angell knows what will happen to the remainder of her land. Last fall, a friend of her nephew’s purchased the 33-acre parcel of land that includes her home. He told Angell she could stay in the house as long as she likes. But when the year ended, the future of the adjoining 331-acre property she owned with her late husband was still unclear.

The larger parcel was sold at auction June 8 for $638,072, according to Pete Ramsey with Counts Realty & Auction Group. The new owners are Upton Farms 4 LLC and Robin Presson, according to county records. They couldn’t be reached for comment.

Angell was told that they hope to one day put in an orchard of sweet cherries, hazelnuts and chestnuts. She’s a fan of them all, Angell said with a laugh.

“It’s a load off my shoulders, can quit having to worry about it now. I hated it had to be sold, but I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter.”

Angell said she was told she could use the greenhouse located on the property, if she decides to grow again.

The crew from Mexico once again came to Penhook to help Angell tend and harvest the tobacco. Angell said they’re the main reason she didn’t give up on the crop.

“They’ve got families to feed, too. Some of them have been with me for 30 years. It’s sort of hard just to shut the door, you know,” she said. “Eventually that’s going to have to happen, probably, because I can’t do it forever.”

But eventually hasn’t arrived just yet.

Angell said the workers have kept her company, inquiring about whether she’s eating. Sometimes, when they cooked on the grill after a day’s work, they invited Angell to join. After a lifetime of cooking for two, it’s hard to prepare meals for just one.

“They’ve been a super bunch of guys,” Angell said. “Anything I need doing, all I’ve got to do is ask.”

The man who owns the home Angell occupies told her to continue as if the house and land it sits upon were still her own. So that’s what she’s doing. Johnny’s hospital bed is still in the living room of the little blue house. Angell knows she should get rid of the “constant reminder” of her husband’s death, but more than a year after his passing, it’s still there.

Though the property has changed hands, things feel mostly the same to Angell. Except, of course, the absence of her husband of more than 40 years.

“It feels different because Johnny’s not here,” Angell said. “Some days it’s better than others, some days are worse than others. But I couldn’t wish him back like the shape he was in.”

Angell isn’t sure yet if she’ll farm next year. Growing tobacco hasn’t gotten any easier, industry pressures still exist and paying bills remains a struggle. She expects to make a decision by the end of the year.

Though she admits things don’t look good, Angell still has hope.

“You’ve always got to have a little faith,” she said. “You can’t farm without it.”

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County.

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