COLUMNISTS

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

John Oncken
A crew stringing tobacco on to laths.  This many people can make a lot of tobacco in one day.

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!" 

Tobacco growing in Wisconsin? Yes, indeed, there really was/is tobacco grown in Wisconsin – some 38,000 acres in 1919, and yes there is still a few acres, probably less than a 1,000 acres (a guess because the state no longer keeps any data on the crop)      

A not very old tobacco shed with the vents open meaning there is tobacco inside curing.  Many of the sheds on farms are old and need constant repair.

I was raised on a dairy farm near Stoughton in Dane county and we annually grew about four acres of the crop. 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 – probably just for old-time's sake – I annually get the urge to visit farms raising tobacco and again relive the experiences of the harvest process and remembering the sweat and energy involved in getting the mature plants chopped, speared and hung in the shed. 

A tobacco spear that is put on the end of a lath in order to hold the plant.

It’s all hard labor

Everything involved in harvesting tobacco is hard labor and working under sunny skies cloudless skies in 80-degree temperature didn't seem to bother us. Nor did 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. 

Just looking

Recently I made a couple of look-see trips across the once big tobacco growing area in the Stoughton, Utica, Cambridge, Deerfield area and noted tobacco harvest was in full swing and as has been forever true, human labor is the prime mover: there is no mechanization involved. Here are the steps involved:

Recently chopped tobacco plants wilting in the sun to make them easier to handle without damage.
  • The mature plant about four-foot tall is chopped at its base with axes and laid neatly on the ground to wilt. 
  • 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. 
A tobacco ax, like the spear, is specially made in the harvest of tobacco.

Mechanization?

Not much. 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. 

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.

Hanging the laths of tobacco on the Tamarac poles.

Never forget  

I first learned about tobacco when my family moved to Stoughton from Waunakee when I was eight 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 at 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 and the great feeling when the work was done. 

The mortgage lifter

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. 

It appears that Wisconsin tobacco growing is now in its death throes as it is being strangled by a labor shortage (who wants to work that hard today?), high labor costs, rocketing fertilizer costs, a seldom increasing sale price and fewer farmers as the old “tobacco growers” retire. 

The person hanging the tobacco usually stands on a thick board across the poles, unless you are young and fearless and have great balance.

And, this year’s crop was a disaster for some: a leading grower described it as “rust, wind and hail” that led to near crop failures.

It’s the memories

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 and a lifelong pride in knowing that you did it and survived. I do.      

Reach John F. Oncken at 608-837-7406, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.