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Tobacco Culture

Tobacco Culture: Farming Kentucky's Burley Belt

Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Tobacco Culture
    Book Description:

    Whereas most crops drive farmers apart as they compete for the best prices, the price controls on tobacco bring growers together. The result is a culture unlike any other in America, one often forgotten or overlooked as federal and state governments fight over the spoils of the tobacco settlement.Tobacco Culturedescribes the process of raising a crop of burley from the perspective and experience of the farmers themselves. In the process of gathering information for the book, the authors performed most steps in the tobacco production process, from dropping plants, burning seedbeds, topping, and cutting to stripping and baling the finished product. Van Willigen and Eastwood document both present practices and historical developments in tobacco farming at the very moment a way of life stands poised for dramatic change. In addition to growing practices, the authors found other common threads linking growers and tobacco producing regions. Where tobacco is grown, it often becomes the major cash crop and carries the health of the economy. Farmer Oscar Richardson states, "It's bread and butter. It's the industry of the community, the state as a whole.... You take tobacco out of Kentucky and this farmland wouldn't be worth a nickel." Combining cultural anthropology and oral history, John van Willigen and Susan Eastwood have created a remarkable portrait of the heart of the burley belt in Central Kentucky.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4808-3
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. General Editors’ Preface
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. 1 Tobacco Culture
    (pp. 1-13)

    A burley tobacco culture exists. Men and women who raise burley tobacco share knowledge about tobacco production, a language with which they talk about tobacco, and even a sense of tobacco politics. Making a living by raising tobacco affects producers’ “relationships to the land, their communities, their governments, and their churches, and how they are viewed as citizens” (Greene 1994, 71). While special knowledge and language develops around any agricultural commodity, some characteristics of tobacco have led to an especially elaborate “commodity culture.” A discussion of these characteristics follows.

    Tobacco is economically important in the places where it is grown....

  6. 2 Tobacco Ground
    (pp. 14-24)

    The process of raising a crop of tobacco usually starts with the decisions about where to place the crop and how much to plant. Because leaf is demanding on soil nutrients and vulnerable to plant diseases, these decisions are especially complex. The farmer must take into account soil fertility, topography, and the exposure to plant disease associated with a particular plot, as well as his or her own production goals and the relative importance of tobacco in the particular mix of crops for that farm. Decision making about placement of the tobacco crop often reflects a multi-year cropping cycle strategy....

  7. 3 Tobacco Labor
    (pp. 25-37)

    Labor is one of the main expenses in tobacco production. Farmers have always had four ways to obtain labor for their crop. They and other family members can do the work; they can share or swap labor with neighbors; they can hire people; or they can have someone sharecrop their land. In the past, more labor was provided by members of the family and cooperative work-swapping groups formed of neighbors (Rosenberg and Coughenour 1990, 1). The loss of these sources of labor is keenly felt during the unmechanized, labor-intensive steps in the production of the burley tobacco crop. The reduction...

  8. 4 The Tobacco Program
    (pp. 38-63)

    Burley tobacco has been sold through a federally supervised marketing system since 1933. Growers who participate in the Burley Tobacco Program are authorized to sell a certain number of pounds of tobacco at or above a minimum support price during each marketing year. The total number of pounds that can be sold in a given year is determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a formula that accounts for domestic demand, export demand, and reserve stock levels (Snell 1996). Tobacco taken to market under this program is graded by specially trained U.S. government tobacco graders. Each of the 115...

  9. 5 Sowing the Beds
    (pp. 64-82)

    The process of raising a crop of tobacco starts with the preparations for producing seedlings for transplantation. Although transplant production technology is changing rapidly, today the majority of tobacco plants are raised by the farmer in a nursery bed located adjacent to the field and transplanted. These seedbeds are prepared in the fall or spring and are often placed on the most fertile soil. Although not a recommended practice, the same location is often used over and over again, supplemented by heavy applications of fertilizers. Beds are plowed and carefully prepared so that the soil has a fine texture. Then...

  10. 6 Setting the Plants
    (pp. 83-101)

    Tobacco is transplanted, or set, from mid May through early June. This involves either raising or purchasing transplants, preparing the fields, and transplanting using a machine (called a setter) derived from machines developed for planting vegetable seedlings. This aspect of the process is now undergoing a major transformation. Increasingly plants are raised commercially in greenhouse operations rather than being grown on the farm for use on that farm. In addition to changes in plant production, the planting itself has undergone substantial change during the lives of the older farmers with whom we spoke. There has been a shift from the...

  11. 7 Cultivating and Topping
    (pp. 102-115)

    A field of healthy tobacco is a uniform height with long, broad leaves. In the growing stage, it is a uniform green color. Maintaining a healthy crop is important to the farmer because any flaws in the leaf may be reflected in the price received for the crop and in reduced yield. Weeds reduce yields. While the crop is “lying by,” a farmer’s concerns turn to protecting the growing crop from weeds and pests. He or she must watch carefully for the beginnings of pest or disease damage and weed infestations and be prepared to deal with them quickly. The...

  12. 8 Cutting, Housing, and curing
    (pp. 116-141)

    To harvest tobacco, a man cuts each individual stalk with a tomahawk-like tobacco knife and impales it on a tobacco stick. Cutting tobacco is arduous and dangerous work. Once cut, the tobacco is allowed to wilt in the field for a time and then is housed in a specially built barn and cured. Curing is a process of controlled drying in which the nutrients remaining in the leaf from photosynthesis are used to support the declining life processes of the leaf. During the curing time, the valuable leaf is subject to damage from too rapid drying or from the mold...

  13. 9 The Stripping Room
    (pp. 142-160)

    After the tobacco, including the stems, is well cured, the sticks are taken down. Tobacco is then prepared for the market by stripping the leaves off the stalk, dividing them into grades, and baling them. In the days before highly mechanized corn harvesting, there was often a delay before starting stripping while the corn was cut and put in shocks. Corn cutting, done with a machete-like knife, was time consuming. Stripping is indoor work, so one could afford to wait until after the weather got bad.

    This process occurs in the “stripping room.” Although stripping rooms vary, most have a...

  14. 10 On the Floor
    (pp. 161-178)

    Burley tobacco is marketed through a loose-leaf auction system that was first used west of the Alleghenies at Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1901, based on a pattern established at Richmond, Virginia, in 1842 (Clark and Browning 1953, 5). It is referred to as a “loose-leaf market” because the tobacco is not packed in containers. From the earliest days of tobacco production in the 17th century, leaf was sold in hogsheads because of the distance tobacco had to be transported. In the early days, most tobacco was shipped to England. After the Civil War, tobacco was marketed by auction in hogsheads in...

  15. 11 Burley Tobacco and Its Transformations
    (pp. 179-193)

    However buffeted by market and political forces, medical and legal threats, the four hundred-year-old craft of tobacco production is still in place. The basic outlines of the crop production system used in the Virginia Tidewater in the seventeenth century and among Native American horticulturists even earlier can still be seen in the practices of contemporary tobacco farmers (Carman 1939, Green 1965, Isaac 1982, 22-27, Smyth 1784). At the same time tobacco knowledge and practices have changed through time. Yields have increased. Market prices have stabilized. Labor has been saved. Moreover, as all are aware, the end of the twentieth century...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 194-195)
  17. References Cited
    (pp. 196-200)
  18. Index
    (pp. 201-213)