Stoughton farmer continues tobacco growing tradition despite challenges

Gloria Hafemeister
Mark Nordlie is one of only a few farmers in southern Wisconsin to still raise tobacco.  After a 2016 barn fire he designed and rebuilt a barn for drying the tobacco leaves with 31 lathes on a pole; 16 feet apart. There are  550 poles in this barn.

STOUGHTON –  They call themselves “Weekend Warriors” — a group of guys raised in the tobacco growing area of the state accustomed to the tedious job of harvesting tobacco by hand.

This is how tobacco grower Mark Nordlie’s friends describe his 'workers' when they return each year to help their buddy who is one of the few farmers in Wisconsin still raising tobacco.

It’s the biggest challenge today’s tobacco growers face – finding someone to come to help with the harvest. Lack of manpower, Nordlie says, is what led many growers to discontinue the trend adopted by so many farmers years ago, particularly those of Norwegian decent.

Tobacco was once a major cash crop in Wisconsin, but today very few farms remain. Those that do are primarily located in southeast Dane County.

John Arneson still lives on the family farm near Stoughton where tobacco was once a prominent crop. 

“My last crop was in 1980 but my family raised tobacco from 1917-1080. It paid lots of bills on the farm and put me through college debt free,” Arneson said.

The Stoughton farmer says his family gave up the tedious tobacco raising venture but Nordlie and a handful of others have not.

Nordlie is the third generation to raise tobacco in the Stoughton area since his family came to the area from Norway in 1845, three years before Wisconsin became a state.

Like other Norwegian settlers, they raised a tobacco crop on some of the farmland. The acreage has varied somewhat over the years, depending on the demand, but he currently has 12 acres of his 130-acre farm devoted to this unique crop.

For years the tobacco companies determined how much they would need in a given year and then the government reissued the allotment to each farmer based on that need. The idea was to prevent over-production and to help assure growers received a fair price.

MORE: Tobacco growing in Wisconsin, a tradition that's fading away

The anti-tobacco movement changed things. The government is out of the business and raising tobacco is similar to raising a canning company crop. Tobacco company representatives meet with the farmers in January and tell them how much they will be buying this year.

“If the cigarette tax goes up, as they are considering, there could be more of a drop in demand,” he says.

Nordlie knows he is fortunate to find faithful workers. He has been harvesting tobacco since he was 4 years old. When he was growing up it was a great job for children and teens but these days younger people rarely want to help.

Mark Nordlie assembles the wooden box form that will be used to wrap white paper around dried tobacco leaves.  The bales will be secured with twine and sent to the local tobacco warehouse for further processing by the buyers.

He's been blessed with one faithful young worker – a FFA member who said she enjoys it. His other helpers are friends who have been with him for 30 years. Each year the friends discuss how many acres to do.

"The thing about tobacco is you handle the plant so many times,” Nordlie said. “You handle it when at planting, topping, cutting, stringing, loading and hanging it in the shed.  Then you take it down again, strip the leaves off, bundle it and wrap it in paper, tie it with string and then haul it to the market. It’s all done by hand.”

Nordlie’s grandparents and then his parents raised a variety of crops on what grew to a 130-acre farm. Tobacco was always a cash crop and acreage varied over the years.

Tobacco growing was regulated by the government and if one farmer chose not to raise tobacco in a given year he could rent out his allotment acreage to another farmer who desired more acres. Each spring the tobacco companies told farmers how many pounds of tobacco they needed and allotments were set accordingly.

When Nordlie farmed with his parents they raised beef, hogs, corn and soybeans but phased out of livestock in the ‘80’s and eventually rented out the crop land. He then took a job in town. He did, however, keep his tobacco acreage and continued the family tradition with a job that allowed him to take off in spring to plant and in late summer to harvest.

He says raising tobacco is a continual learning experience.

The crop requires a lot of fertilizer – potash and nitrogen but no phosphorus. Worms and grubs can create problems in spring and aphids can also be a threat. Nordlie says by carefully monitoring crops, problems can usually be avoided.

Tobacco may also be susceptible to fungus but Nordlie has been spared that problem. Growers also have to be on the alert for mold that may develop inside the shed if damp weather persists along with the lack of wind or sunlight. Luckily he hasn't had to contend with mold.

He has, however, had to deal with the fallout from a fire in 2016 that destroyed his original strip house and barn. Nordlie replaced the drying shed with a different style building that is narrower than most drying barns. He runs fans to keep the leaves drying. 

Nordlie says Amish families raise a variety of tobacco plants that are sold for chewing tobacco. That product consists of one grade of plants, while tobacco grown for cigarettes consists of more grades(up to eight but three to four is more common).

“I plant 32 inch rows with 15,500 population. Most growers have 12,000 population,” he said. “My stalks are smaller and bundles are lighter weight. Everyone does it a little different.”

Workers also walk through the field after plants have emerged, hoeing and weeding.

“Tobacco doesn’t have a lot of product labeled for weed control and none of it is a silver bullet so we do the weeding by hand,” he says.

“The tips of the leaves gets more sun so tips have more nicotine than the lower portions of the leaf,” he explains. “That’s why tobacco producers don’t like to see hail. Hail damages the most vulnerable part of the crop, the tips, which also has the greatest value.”

Bundles of tobacco leaves carefully bundled by hand dry in a shed near Stoughton.

If there is any pole rot from storage the product is also down-graded.

This year Nordlie’s crop had a little wind damage resulting in leaves twisting, making them a little harder to harvest. 

“Our biggest problem this year was finding the labor to harvest,” he said. “It’s part time work so my helpers are available weekends which is why we call them “weekend warriors.”

In November he will again get help taking down the dried leaves. The leaves are then laid out, with tips overlapping. The leaves are then baled with white paper and white twine. In the earlier days, Nordlie says the twine was light brown but if a piece got into the leaves it was hard to detect and hurt the value of the product when customers found fiber in their product.

He and other growers combine their yearly orders for the white baling paper and twine. 

“Years ago the hardware stores and coops carried tobacco growing supplies but now there aren’t enough growers."