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Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century

Ann K. Ferrell
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Once iconic American symbols, tobacco farms are gradually disappearing. It is difficult for many people to lament the loss of a crop that has come to symbolize addiction, disease, and corporate deception; yet, in Kentucky, the plant has played an important role in economic development and prosperity. Burley tobacco -- a light, air-cured variety used in cigarette production -- has long been the Commonwealth's largest cash crop and an important aspect of regional identity, along with bourbon, bluegrass music, and Thoroughbred horses.

    In Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, Ann K. Ferrell investigates the rapidly transforming process of raising and selling tobacco by chronicling her conversations with the farmers who know the crop best. She demonstrates that although the 2004 "buyout" ending the federal tobacco program is commonly perceived to be the most significant change that growers have had to negotiate, it is, in reality, only one new factor among many. Burley reveals the tangible and intangible challenges tobacco farmers face today, from the logistics of cultivation to the growing stigma against the crop.

    Ferrell uses ethnography, archival research, and rhetorical analysis to tell the complex story of burley tobacco production in twenty-first-century Kentucky. Not only does she give a voice to the farmers who persevere in this embattled industry, but she also sheds light on their futures, contesting the widely held assumption that they can easily replace the crop by diversifying their opera-tions with alternative crops. As tobacco fades from both the physical and economic landscapes, this nuanced volume documents and explores the culture and practices of burley production today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4235-7
    Subjects: History, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    James C. Klotter, Terry L. Birdwhistell and Douglas A. Boyd

    In the field of oral history, Kentucky is a national leader. Over the past several decades, thousands of its citizens have been interviewed. While oral history is, of course, only one type of source material, the very personal nature of recollection often discloses hidden aspects of history. Oral sources thus provide a vital thread in the rich fabric that is Kentucky history. Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series brings into print the most important of the state’s collections of its citizens’ oral history, with each volume focusing on a particular subject.

    Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century is the...

  5. A Note on Transcription
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  7. Introduction “Would you rather have present day or olden days?” Tradition and Transition in Kentucky Burley Tobacco Production
    (pp. 1-36)

    Frequently over the past decade, I have heard Kentucky natives comment with sadness on the changing landscape of their home state: the countryside of childhood will soon be gone. The links between land and culture, sense of place, history, and identity have been widely acknowledged.¹ According to Lucy Lippard, “The intersections of nature, culture, history, and ideology form the ground on which we stand—our land, our place, the local.”² Such intersections, of course, are neither inherent in the land itself nor static. We form the ground on which we stand through our use of it and as we come...

  8. Part 1. The Burley Tobacco Crop Year, Then and Now

    • Introduction to Part 1
      (pp. 39-42)

      It’s a late winter day in March 2007, and when Keenan Bishop, county extension agent, and I get out of my pickup truck at a Franklin County, Kentucky, farm, we are immediately encircled by two curious but friendly dogs, including a tiny dog I will come to know as Buster. We walk through a gate to where two men are working, and I meet Martin Henson for the first time, along with an older fellow helping him with the day’s work. As we talk, Martin continues to work, and following Keenan’s lead, I begin to help a little. What I...

    • Chapter 1 Sowing the Seeds and Setting the Tobacco
      (pp. 43-64)

      The work that Martin was engaged in on that March day when I first met him was the preparation of the beds in which his tobacco plants would germinate and grow. Because tobacco seeds are too delicate to plant directly in the field, they must be started in a protected environment and then transplanted. As we talked, he stretched thick black plastic across wooden frames built directly on the ground, weighted it down, and filled the plastic-lined frames with water. Later, he would plant seeds in polystyrene trays filled with peat-moss-based soil, and the trays—each about thirteen by twenty-six...

    • Chapter 2 The Harvest through Preparation for Market
      (pp. 65-98)

      In preparation for cutting, tobacco sticks—wooden sticks, about four and a half feet long and three-quarters by one inch in diameter, hand-split or manufactured, that will hold the cut tobacco—are dropped in the field. Most often they are loaded onto a platform on the back of a highboy where at least two people stand or sit (depending on the highboy), dropping them into the rows one at a time as the highboy is driven through the field. To ensure the efficiency of cutting, the sticks must be dropped at precisely spaced intervals. According to Roger Perkins, a Franklin...

    • Chapter 3 Taking Tobacco to Market
      (pp. 99-112)

      The auction system developed and evolved over the centuries but was basically in place by the early twentieth century. Throughout the century, the opening of the market season was an important event marked by local festivals and widely covered by the media. For instance, in 1939 the opening of the markets in Lexington, for many years the largest burley marketing center, included “a parade, the crowning of a movie star as queen, a carnival, and French follies.”¹ Year after year, a similar photograph was taken and published to commemorate the opening of sales: men in trench coats and fedora hats...

  9. Part 2. The Shifting Meanings of Tobacco

    • Introduction to Part 2
      (pp. 115-124)

      In my early fieldwork with tobacco producers I learned that tobacco is most often talked about in terms of change. Through my ethnographic research I learned about a range of changes that have taken place on tobacco farms—from technological innovations to new marketing practices. But other kinds of changes pervaded my fieldwork: the changed political and social meanings of tobacco, the effects of which were raised both directly and indirectly by farmers, extension agents, and others. My recognition on that day in the summer of 2007 that tobacco was missing from the walls of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture...

    • Chapter 4 Tobacco’s Move from Self-Evident to Self-Conscious Tradition
      (pp. 125-144)

      Between the early 1940s, when the Kentucky Department of Agriculture began publishing a newsletter, through the 1960s, the KDA’s coverage of tobacco quickly became increasingly self-conscious as threats to tobacco increased. Although the “health scares” began in the early 1950s, they were not directly remarked upon until the release of the surgeon general’s report in 1964. Tobacco was occasionally described as a “tradition” in this period, if it was labeled at all. While the “tradition” label marks a practice as self-conscious, it also implies continuity. Tobacco is thus presented as an ongoing practice, even though it is one that is...

    • Chapter 5 Tobacco under Attack: Hello, “Heritage”
      (pp. 145-180)

      A 2003 editorial lamented, “They tell us change is good, and we generally don’t shy from it. But when change causes the demise of a tradition, it’s a sad thing. Tobacco is not the most politically correct crop in the world, but it is such a huge part of our history and heritage.”¹ Here tobacco is described as a dead tradition, killed off by change. By the next sentence the stigma now associated with the crop is referenced, and tobacco is relabeled “heritage,” calling forth Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s definition of heritage as “the trans-valuation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded,...

  10. Part 3. Raising Burley Tobacco in a New Century

    • Introduction to Part 3
      (pp. 183-192)

      When I asked one county extension agent about public perceptions of tobacco today, he replied:

      If you’re asking, Ann, if a tobacco farmer in Kentucky can go to a national meeting somewhere, like you know the Community Farm Alliance or Farm Bureau, and stand up and say “I’m a tobacco farmer from Kentucky” and be proud of it—I think there has to be a little bit of stigma, that they don’t do that. As I’ve aged in this position and have been able to go to more and experience more national type meetings, or people from other places, yeah,...

    • Chapter 6 “Now is the good old days”: Burley Tobacco Production and Nostalgia
      (pp. 193-214)

      Living in Kentucky, I came to understand that most people have family ties to tobacco, and many worked in tobacco as children or young adults. This is not surprising; I was repeatedly told that at one time “every little farm” had a tobacco base, and indeed, throughout the twentieth century tobacco was grown on most Kentucky farms. People talk about tobacco work with a mixture of emotions, and descriptions from memory are often saturated with sensory details. They describe the comforting smell and atmosphere of the tobacco stripping room on winter days but also the oppressive heat and stickiness of...

    • Chapter 7 “Why can’t they just grow something else?” The Challenges of “Replacing” Burley Tobacco
      (pp. 215-242)

      According to the author of a review of James Baker Hall and Wendell Berry’s Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy in the Lexington Herald-Leader, subtitled “Harvesting Our Heritage,” “Tobacco growing is going, done in first by health concerns, then by the global economy and cheap imported leaf.”¹ The federal tobacco buyout was seen by many as the final blow—even a welcome blow—to what had once been Kentucky’s largest cash crop. Headlines proclaimed, “Farmers at the End of Tobacco Road”² and “Kentucky Turns the Page on Tobacco.”³ Other headlines suggested that tobacco had been replaced: “Burley Is Just a Memory Now:...

  11. Conclusion Burley
    (pp. 243-252)

    Much has changed in the Burley Belt since the major period of my research, the 2007 crop year. Tobacco companies—with Philip Morris in the lead as the largest burley buyer—have stopped offering incentives to farmers who fulfill their contracts, they have cut many growers’ contracts significantly or entirely and increased others, and they have begun to penalize farmers who do not package their burley in large bales. Growers and tobacco specialists express the belief that the tobacco companies—again with Philip Morris in the lead—are culling growers whose tobacco quality does not meet their standards. Several of...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 253-282)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 283-294)
  14. Index
    (pp. 295-310)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-312)