COLUMNISTS

Yes, tobacco is still raised in Wisconsin

John Oncken
Harvest begins as newly chopped plants are wilting.

It often comes as a big surprise to many Wisconsin residents that at one time tobacco was a major cash crop in parts of Wisconsin. While tobacco raising was limited to relatively small areas—populated by Norwegian families in the southern and western part of the state—it was a crop that has a proud heritage.

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. We annually grew about four to five acres of tobacco. 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. And strangely enough oftentimes the best tobacco workers are young teenagers with their strong backs, so I started young.

The tobacco crop starts with transplants from Michigan.

Never forget

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 leaves.   

Either two or four row planters are used to get the young plants in the soil.

The final step

It’s now tobacco stripping time—the final stage in the long process of producing a tobacco crop is stripping the leaves from the stem after the plants have dried and turned from green to brown while hanging in the tobacco shed since being harvested in September/October. The laths of tobacco are taken down—always on a warmish, high humidity day and the stripping process begins usually about this time of year. 

Plants strung on lathes hang in the shed for curing.

It’s a long season that started in early summer with the transplanting of  6 to 8 inch seedlings brought in from Michigan, hoeing weeds, chopping and stringing the plants onto lathes and hanging them in the shed for curing and ending with stripping the leaves from the plant stems and pressing them into 40-pound bundles for delivery to the  warehouse at Stoughton. 

Hard work

Everything involved in raising tobacco is hard labor but never mind, that’s what we did growing up on farms with tobacco. Eight degree temperatures didn’t slow the weed hoeing nor did the black gummy hands that resulted 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. 

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 the sons and daughters' college tuition. Tobacco also was the crop that produced work and the first earned money for many farm kids.  

Stripped leaves are placed in a press box.

As time passed, the farm “mortgage lifting” crop acreage dropped as the anti-smoking movement took hold (although Wisconsin tobacco was never used in cigarettes). and, the industry changed dramatically with the “Fair and Equitable Tobacco Act of 2004” that did away with production quotas and the government buying of excess tobacco. It meant that tobacco growers were faced with no market and there were fears the traditional crop and its income would come to an end. 

A high quality tobacco leaf newly stripped.

However, Swedish Match of Stoughton, the major tobacco buyer in the state, offered contracts to a limited number of growers—all in southern Wisconsin. Thus, tobacco growing ended in the “northern” area. The company has continued to offer production contracts in southern Wisconsin and the tobacco enterprise has more or less thrived on the 1000 or so acres still grown on local farms still raising the crop.  

The tobacco acreage in the Badger State has shrunk and continues to do do so and tobacco farming in Wisconsin is close to being on life support these days as the number of farms in Dane, Rock and neighboring counties has shrunk from some 4,000 farms and 16,000 acres in the last 50 years to under a 1,000 acres raised by well under a hundred farms today. Yet the price of about $2.00 per pound is good and can bring in $5,000 an acre or more.

The final result is 40 pound bundles that are delivered to a warehouse.

About the same

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. Looking back, I realize how different life was while stripping tobacco in that old steamy strip house. No TV, cell phones, computers and only four football bowl games to listen to as we stripped tobacco. But, that's OK, it was truly family working together and my memories are invaluable just as the kids of today will say 50 years from now.

John F. Oncken, owner of Oncken Communications can be reached at  608-837-7406 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.