As cotton was king in the Deep South, tobacco reigned supreme in much of the upper South. For many years, Burley tobacco and Kentucky were synonymous. Without the cash crop of tobacco, most of Kentucky’s small farms would have faced financial ruin.
Ann K. Ferrell has captured the importance of Burley tobacco to not only the commonwealth’s economy, but its importance in the cultural life of many its citizens, in “Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century.”
Originally published in 2013, the 2016 paperback edition is a welcome addition to the reading list of Kentucky books and is number 12 in the Kentucky Remembered series, which relies heavily on the use of oral history.
The influence of Burley tobacco on Kentucky cannot be underestimated. For generations, the state’s farmers relied on tobacco to pay for most aspects of rural life. It paid for the mortgage as well as many of the necessities that could not be raised on the family farm. Tobacco paid for doctor bills, education, clothing and luxuries.
It is no wonder that there is so strong an attachment both economically and culturally to this crop in Kentucky.
Since Burley is used to make cigarettes, and smoking had become an addictive passion for millions, the monetary value of the crop became overwhelming.
Ferrell has deftly woven history and folklore together in her work. She has successfully made a subject that could at worst be a boring string of facts linked together in a Clio-metric style study, into an in-depth view of a way of life. The reader is led through the cycles of planting, tending and harvesting one of the most labor intensive crops on the planet.
For those of us who grew up on a tobacco farm, the descriptions of the basics of tobacco farming bring back both pleasant and unpleasant memories. Before more modern methods of cultivation became available, the process of tobacco planting remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The seasonal rhythm of the tobacco crop is delightfully portrayed in her book.
Tobacco cultivation began early in the year with the “burning” of the tobacco bed. This now-outdated method of preparing the earth for planting involved establishing a seed bed by burning an area of ground to rid the site of weed seeds that would compete with the tobacco seedlings.
After covering the seed bed with canvas to protect the tender plants, the farmer waited for the plants to “harden off” or become ready to transplant to the tobacco field. The transplantation of the tobacco plants is known as “setting.” On more modern farms, the tobacco is planted with the aid of mechanical tobacco setters. On less mechanized farms the setting would be done by hand with “hand setters.”
Planting could also use the “peg” method. This would involve taking a wooden peg and making a hole to plant the tobacco.
Weeding could take an enormous amount of time, too. Before the use of chemicals, worming the tobacco crop meant that individuals (mostly children) would hand pick the voracious tobacco worms off the plants. Cutting and housing tobacco took an enormous amount of labor. Both of these tasks could be dangerous. Using razor sharp tobacco knives could sometimes cause horrific accidents
When placing the tobacco in barns to cure, those who “housed” the tobacco could fall from tier poles high in the barn. Culturally, tobacco farming was a family and community affair. It brought people together. Neighbors helped neighbors, and family supported family.
The last phase of the tobacco crop involved the “stripping” of the tobacco leaves from the stalk. This is when the crop came into “order,” or was moist enough to have the dried leaves supple enough to make into “hands” for eventual sale.
Ferrell’s book also explores the decline of the tobacco culture in Kentucky in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The void that tobacco has left in the state’s economy and in the life of the farm family and community has not been filled. The crop that once was king in the commonwealth has gone from a “heritage” crop to a hate crop that is under constant attack from everyone from the medical profession, media, and from the government that once protected it. With the 2004 buyout that effectively ended government support, the future of a once proud and powerful crop seemed dim indeed.
For those who did not have the privilege to read “Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century” in hardcover, a treat is in store. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has a love of Kentucky agriculture and history.
If you’re interested in purchasing the book, click here.