Why do farmers grow tobacco? from David Hayden


On yesterday’s blog post, I shared several photos from my visit to a tobacco farm in Tennessee. Today I invited David Hayden (@DavidHayden7) to share more about the growing and harvesting process of tobacco. He grew up working with tobacco in Kentucky and studied the crop in college.

Fire cured Tobacco barn

“No its ok, that barn isn’t on fire it’s supposed to be smoking. “

I’ve explained this more times than I can count. Well then, why is that barn smoking? This is where the conversation takes off.

Growing up in tobacco country, aka Kentucky, it was no secret that I spent the majority of my youth in the tobacco field. Unlike most crops, tobacco farming is almost a year-long endeavor. Ryan Goodman recently posted a picture of a tobacco field in TN and I immediately had flashbacks of my youth and volunteered to help explain what exactly a tobacco farmer does.

Tobacco growing hydroponically

Let’s start at the beginning. There are two major types of tobacco; burley and dark. Burley tobacco is a lighter variety of tobacco produced more often than not for cigarettes, while dark tobacco is predominately used for chewing tobacco and cigars. Though tobacco’s predominant uses are for smoking (in some form or fashion) and chewing tobacco; there are companies out there like Kentucky BioProcessing that are utilizing innovative biotechnology techniques to find new and groundbreaking uses for the proteins produced by the tobacco plant.

The tobacco season starts in the very late winter months through the very early spring months, when tobacco plants are seeded into floating trays to begin growing hydroponically. As these plants begin to mature they are “set” (set is a term used that refers to planting in the ground) in the ground. To do this the farmer uses a tobacco “setter” (video) that is pulled behind a tractor.

Tobacco Bloom

As the plants begin to mature in the field, the rows are then “chopped” out (hoeing the out the weeds) usually by hand, often times hand sprayed with insecticides and later sprayed with fungicides to prevent unwanted disease and fungus. On a good year when the plant reaches approximately 5 ½ to 6 ft tall it will bloom. When the plants are in full bloom the farmer must “top” (referring to the breaking off of the tobacco blooms) them, to ensure the majority of growth goes into the leaves because the leaves are sold by the pound. While topping tobacco, suckers are removed from the plant as well. Suckers are shoots or growths that sprout between the leaves and the stalk, and must be removed promote leaf growth. After topping, the field is sprayed again with insecticide, fungicide and sucker control.

Tobacco horn worm

Tobacco is very susceptible to disease, fungus and insects. For example many areas of tobacco country are plagued with black shank. Black Shank is a fungal disease that lives in the soil causing the plant to form lesions followed by yellowing and withering very quickly. Along with diseases, tobacco worms (Horn worms) are infamous for destroying crops and must be controlled.

Once the tobacco has matured it is cut and spiked on a stick. Farmers typically place 5-6 stalks of tobacco on one tobacco stick. The crop is then hung in a barn to be either flue cured or fire cured.

Flue cured tobacco (typically all burley and some dark varieties) is a crop that is hung in the barn and dried (or cured) by the ambient air in and around the barn. The air is controlled by opening and closing tall narrow doors on the side of the barn.

Tobacco Tray

Fire curing is a method utilized in dark varieties only. The curing process takes place in a fully enclosed barn with a smoldering fire beneath it. Essentially fire cured tobacco is “smoked”. Fire curing gives the tobacco a sweet smoky flavor and darker color.

Once the tobacco has cured it is taken down and “stripped”. Stripping is the process of removing the leaves from the stalk. As the tobacco is stripped the leaves are separated into three –four grades. These grades from the bottom of the stalk to the top are as follows; “trash” (or priming), “lugs, “leaf, and tips. The value of each grade increases as you make your way up the stalk. Each grade is pressed into bales weighing about 100 lbs each.

Ten years ago, at this point in the process the farmer was off to the market, (or tobacco warehouse in farming terms) to sell their crop. This is a place where farmers and buyers came together and the finished product was auctioned off. Today because of the government-driven tobacco buyout, tobacco warehouses are a thing of the past. Tobacco crops are now contracted directly to tobacco companies. The buy-out program essentially paid many farmers to stop raising tobacco, however this settlement money runs out at the end of 2012.

To many people, tobacco is almost a “foreign” crop because it’s grown in fairly limited areas in the United States from as far south as Georgia up to New England and only as far west as Tennessee and Kentucky. Below is a list of the top ten tobacco producing states as of 2009.

Top 10 Tobacco producing states

Tobacco has been a cash crop in the US since our country was founded. With that said, in the past, tobacco crops were a great way for a small farmer to make a good living. For my family that was a form of income that we relied on from year to year. That turned into a tradition of tobacco farming for many generations. They payout from the crop is very good but like anything else, it’s a gamble if mother nature isn’t on your side. When it’s all said and done tobacco is an industry with a history of being very lucrative however, as times changed so did many tobacco farmers. As for my family, we saw the tobacco buy out as an opportunity to hang up the hoe to expand and diversify the livestock sector of our farm.

Thanks to David Hayden for sharing his thoughts in this guest post! I went to school with David at Oklahoma State where he studied Meat Science for his Master’s degree. He now works in the meat industry and shares great information about meat science and safety at his blog farmingamerica.org. Be sure to stop by his blog and Facebook page and thank him for doing this!

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4 Comments

  1. If you ever wanted to share fodder growing techniques with your readers, I would be happy to supply you a story such as this tobacco growers article. I would be careful to not make it an advertisement for us, rather a new technique that is beginning to spread all over the US.
    Greg

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  2. Actually, Burley tobacco is not flue-cured. Flue-cured tobacco is a separate class of bright tobacco grown primarily on the East Coast from GA to VA. It is called flue-cured because originally a burner burned wood (or later fuel oil) and metal flue pipes distributed the hot air throughout the barn. The tobacco is not exposed to smoke. Today, the heated air is forced through the tobacco by electric fans. Originally, the leaves were picked individually and strung onto wooden sticks and hung in the barn. Today, much of the tobacco is cured in “bulk” barns where the tobacco is packed into frames or boxes and air is forced through a false floor up through the leaves. I grew up on a flue-cured tobacco farm in SC.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curing_of_tobacco

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smith_Tobacco_Barn

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  3. Great post! I’ve never seen tobacco and it’s pretty cool to learn about how it’s produced. Just wondering, since there’s been so much campaigning for anti smoking, does most of the tobacco produced in the US stay here in the US or is it shipped overseas?

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