Tobacco was never a big crop in Wisconsin's farm economy over the years but it was an important one. In Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties in the southern part of the state and Vernon, La Crosse and Crawford counties further north and west; the crop was a major influence on agricultural development during the formative days of dairying in the early 1900s.
I've written about this curious crop a number of times over the years with each story bringing forth calls and e-mails asking the same question: "Was there really tobacco raised in Wisconsin? You must be kidding!"
Yes indeed there really was tobacco grown in Wisconsin - some 38,000 acres in 1919, and yes there is still about 1,000 acres (a guess because the state does not keep any data on the crop today) still raised in the state today.
I was raised on a dairy farm near Stoughton in Dane county and we annually grew about four acres of the crop. That's not a big acreage but about what the small family farms of the day grew because in that era it was mostly family labor that grew the crop.
For some reason - maybe just for old-time's sake - I get the urge to visit a farm raising tobacco and again smell the smells and relive the experiences of planting the crop, watching the harvest or remembering the stripping and getting the bundles off to the warehouse.
Last week I visited two farms in the Edgerton-Cambridge area that were in the midst of harvesting their tobacco crop. Both were family farms: One owned by Larry and Kathy Oberdeck, who raise five acres of tobacco on their 250 acre cash crop farm west of Edgerton, the other Christiana Farms, owned by the Lund Family near Cambridge, which raises 22 acres of the crop on their extensive cash crop operation.
Larry Oberdeck reminded me that I had written about his family some seven or eight years ago during tobacco planting. (It finally came back to me and I did remember.)
The Oberdeck harvesting crew was a really diverse outfit: Three children, Jeff, Sarah and Katie; an assortment of family friends and several Cambodians. Most were "stringing" the wilted tobacco plants onto lathes (not the construction kind, but different), others were loading the now heavy lathes, each holding about six plants, onto wagons and another crew headed, by Larry , was hanging the tobacco in the shed for curing.
Everything involved in raising tobacco is hard labor but the crew working under cloudless skies and an 80-degree temperature didn't seem to mind. Nor did they mind the black gummy hands that result when handling tobacco or the soil that messes up your t-shirt, jeans and shoes. Oh yes, don't forget the aching back from the constant bending up and down.
That's the way it has always been in the tobacco growing business for near 150 years when it was first raised in Walworth County and became a popular crop among the Norwegian farming communities in southern and west central Wisconsin
I first learned about tobacco when my family moved to Stoughton from Waunakee when I was six years old and we began raising the crop along with our Norwegian neighbors.
I guess that when you are once involved in raising tobacco you don't ever forget it. You either remember the hard physical labor and long hours and say "never again" or you look back with nostalgia remembering the spirited competition between brothers in many of the "tobacco jobs," the hard physical work that made you proud to have been able to accomplish, the great feeling when the work was done and even the dusky and aromatic smell of curing tobacco leaf.
Take Mark Murphy who says I took the "best photo ever" of him seven years ago when he was planting tobacco at Oberdecks. He has since graduated from UW-Stevens Point and is a waste water treatment operator in Green Bay but takes vacation to work in tobacco every year.
Then there is Matt McIntyre, who loves to work in tobacco. "Would you believe I served as mayor of Edgerton for 10 years?" he asks. "That's Okay," I responded. "That shouldn't hurt your tobacco stringing skills."
Dennis, James, Ron and Dale Lund raised 22 acres this year - down from 60 acres of a few years ago. As with most tobacco growers in Wisconsin, they raise for Stoughton-based Swedish Match who contracts the pounds needed well in advance.
Over the years demand for their Red Man chewing tobacco has fallen and farmer's production has gone down accordingly.
I counted 25 people in the seven-acre tobacco field the Lunds were harvesting, some as young as 10 or so, others with decades of experience. As tradition works, the youngsters (with strong backs) were piling the wilted plants from five rows into a row of piles.
TOBACCO HARVESTING STEPS
Here's what goes into tobacco harvesting:
• The mature plant about four-foot tall is chopped with special axes and laid neatly on the ground to wilt in the sun.
• After several hours the wilted plants are either piled or increasingly nowadays (as that's a lots of work) not put in piles.
• The plants are "strung" on smooth lathes, i.e. forcing the plant onto the lathe via a sharp, pointed spear and piled one atop another for pickup and hanging in the shed.
Little has changed over the decades in tobacco raising and a farmer of 100 years ago would be right at home in a tobacco field today and, as then, would recognize it as a family enterprise.
Tobacco farming in Wisconsin is close to being on life support these days as the number of farms in Dane, Rock and a neighboring counties has shrunk from 4,000 farms and 16,000 acres to under a 1,000 acres raised by well under 100 farms today. (Once tobacco-rich Vernon County is out of the business.)
Strangely enough, there is a breath of hope (among some) for the future with the advent of "Maryland tobacco' that some growers are raising this year.
Bob Bartz, longtime Viroqua Leaf Co. (based in Lancaster, PA) representative at Edgerton, has contracted with 20-25 area growers this year to raise Maryland tobacco and sees it as a growing demand. "Viroqua Leaf doesn't process tobacco for consumer sales, rather, we acquire it for other companies," Bartz says.
Perhaps because of all the obstacles to raising tobacco: Labor shortages, fewer farmers and public outcry, the world market are apparently short of tobacco.
Most of the remaining Wisconsin growers have raised tobacco for a long time and see the crop not only as an income source, but as part of their heritage and family tradition. Over the years, tobacco was known as the "mortgage lifter" and helped create America's Dairyland. It was the crop that bought mother a new washer or refrigerator and paid her sons and daughters college tuition. Tobacco also was the crop that produced work and the first-earned money for many farm kids.
If you never worked in tobacco, you might be surprised at the crop's long history in our state. If you grew up raising tobacco you have fond memories of hot, sweaty and long days working in the fields and an overwhelming pride in knowing that you did it and survived. I do.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.