The almost unknown Wisconsin crop ...

John Oncken
Now Media Group

For some reason, I receive a constant stream of emails, letters and in-person questions about raising tobacco in Wisconsin.

I'm sure it's because over the years I've written a number of columns about tobacco from planting to growing to harvesting. These writings seem to rest calmly and barely visible on the internet until someone, by accident or intent, runs into one.

The first comment is usually, 'I didn't know tobacco was raised in Wisconsin,' followed by, 'How is it raised?'

I'm always glad to answer the questions or even make a speech about the subject, as happened last fall to a busload of Minnesotans on their way to the Fireside Theater in Fort Atkinson.

Several of the tourists had seen tobacco harvesting in progress on a previous trip and wondered what it was all about. The tour agency owner looked on the internet, found a story I'd written and called me. She arranged a stop in Stoughton, found an empty auditorium and I made an hour presentation (for money). The visitors had lots of questions and seemed to enjoy the experience.

A crop for 165 years

Wisconsin has a long history of raising tobacco, primarily in Dane, Rock, Jefferson, Columbia, Vernon, Crawford and Richland counties, where it was a major crop for well over a century.

Two Ohio transplants, Ralph Pomeroy and J.J. Heistand, were the first farmers to plant tobacco in Wisconsin. The location of that first tobacco field in 1844 (or 1853) is in some dispute — it was either in Walworth or Rock county.

The Norwegians came

What isn't in doubt is that the major influx of Norwegians moving into the rich farmland in southern and southwest Wisconsin saw tobacco as a crop they could raise profitably. Strangely, while Norwegians had no history of raising the crop in their homeland, they became known for their adoption of the crop as their own.

Family names such as Nelson, Swenson, Larson, Erickson, Halvorson, Lund, Weum and Jacobson are forever intertwined with tobacco-raising, even though they may have quit growing the crop long ago.

By the late 1800s, Wisconsin was a leading tobacco growing state with some 16,000 acres grown by about 4,000 farmers. In 1931, it was reported that Wisconsin tobacco production covered nearly 40,000 acres in 22 counties with Dane, Rock Jefferson and Vernon still the leading producers.

Acres went down

Acreage rapidly declined in the last half of the century as other cash crops (corn and soybeans) grew in popularity. Low tobacco prices prompted many small growers to quit the crop, and many farmers didn't have the labor available as their kids went off to college, and the city folks who formerly took vacation time to 'work in tobacco' ceased doing so.

By 1992, the USDA Census counted 1,722 Wisconsin farms growing tobacco. In 1997, the number shrunk to 950 farms and by 2002 to 452 farms. No figures have been reported for Wisconsin in recent years, but my guess is that currently there are 200 farms or less, all of them in the Dane, Rock and Jefferson county areas.

Planting last week

Last week, my son John, who was visiting from North Dakota, and I stopped at a farm just off US 12-18 near Deerfield, where a tobacco planter was slowly moving across a field. Although it was only May 25, early for tobacco planting, the Halvorson family had already planted about 8 acres of their planned total of 30 acres.

The planting crew, Perry Halvorson, nephews Brad and Mark Jr. and friend Dan Enloe, Janesville, were operating a two - row machine, planting the seedlings that had been raised in Michigan.

The old way

Note: for decades, there was the one-row Ellis planter (made in Verona), where two people, riding on seats just above the ground, planted the seedlings. One inserted the plants in the soil, into the jet of water coming from a barrel, left-handed, and the other right-handed.

Traditionally, two kids did the planting while dad sat on a seat high atop the water barrel and drove the team of horses pulling the rig. His job also included driving a straight row just so far from the previous row.

Of course, over the years, small tractors replaced the horses, water barrels got bigger and the one-row planter was parked in the shed or junked.

Still a family crop

Perry Halvorson and his brother, Mark, farm some 1,200 acres just down the road from this farm where Brad and his family live. But, Perry and Mark's sons, Brad and Mark Jr., are the only ones in the tobacco enterprise. Perry explained that his dad, Sanford, was a longtime tobacco raiser and for many years a buyer of the finished crop from farmers.

Nowadays, a farmer signs a contract with a buyer for a designated number of pounds in order to have a market. The dominant buyer is foreign-based Swedish Match that has a warehouse in Stoughton. And no, Wisconsin tobacco never went into cigarettes; it has mainly gone into chewing tobacco only.

It's hard work

The crop involves hard hand labor from planting through hoeing, topping the plant a couple weeks prior to harvest; the hand chopping, piling, stringing about six stalks on to a lathe; hanging in a shed for curing; and finally, stripping the leaves and pressing them into 40-pound, paper-wrapped bundles. Then it's off to the warehouse for a lengthy final curing process.

Another difference in tobacco growing since this writer helped raise the crop at the Oncken farm near Stoughton is the price. In those long gone days, we were lucky to sell for 25 cents a pound; last year the price was $2 a pound.

Tobacco was long known as the 'farm mortgage lifter,' then as the college 'tuition fund,' and in the case of the Oncken family, I remember that my mother got new kitchen cabinets one year and various pieces of kitchen other years.

At one time, Edgerton employed more than 1,000 people for sorting tobacco in some 45 warehouses, producing a payroll of more than $100,000 in the days when that was a lot of money.

Who's the fastest

What I remember the clearest was the competition. Although it was never discussed or even acknowledged, every phase of the tobacco-raising process involved competition. Hoeing, cutting, piling, stringing, stripping are all side-by-side work, and you never want to be the slowest. How could the 20-year-old let a 12-year-old girl get to the end of the row ahead of him? Or string a lath of plants faster? Or strip a handful quicker?

I asked Perry Halvorson why he still raises tobacco? His answer: 'We have to; we're Norwegian farmers.'

If you never worked in tobacco, you're probably surprised at the crop's long history in Wisconsin. 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 know, I did it.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at