Growing up on a farm in the far reaches of western Kentucky in the 1950s, Joey Pendleton became acquainted with the intricacies of the annual burley tobacco crop as a young boy.
“My job as a kid was stringing the leaves in the tobacco barn and picking up whatever was left in the field. You tried to save every leaf you could get back then,” Pendleton said. “Every farm had a little tobacco on it. We all worked together on it.”
Today, the 59-year-old Pendleton lives and works on the same Christian County farm handed down by his father. But the tobacco that once served as Kentucky’s agricultural life’s blood is gone _ a casualty of changing tastes and markets _ and farmers who once depended on its profitability are looking elsewhere to make ends meet.
“I noticed a few weeks ago you used to see the large fields just covered with tobacco but you don’t see it like you did,” Pendleton said.
For decades, centuries really, tobacco represented a rite of passage for small farmers scattered throughout the rolling hills of Kentucky. From the spring planting through the torrid summer months that culminated in the cutting and housing, the burley crop was a family affair, with sons sweating in the fields next to their fathers.
Tobacco created its own culture, with residents of communities so small they barely had a name coming together to discuss the year’s crop and to lend a hand if a neighbor found himself in need. Tobacco paid for the pickup truck that carted the family into town on Saturday night as well as the tuition for offspring seeking a higher education.
But like an ancient civilization, the Kentucky tobacco culture seems fated to become an apparition. The golden leaves of healthy burley plants topped by pink-and-white blooms growing alongside two-lane country roads are becoming an increasingly rare sight. Small farms are giving way to larger operations and the family members who cut the plants by hand and impaled them on sharp, wooden sticks have stepped aside in favor of migrant labor.
The demise was foretold. Tobacco, which has ruined the health of millions, grew out of favor. With smoking in decline, cigarette manufacturers demanded less and less burley, and what was needed could be easily purchased on the cheaper foreign market. The United States now commands only about 10 percent of world burley sales and the money destined for the pockets of Kentucky farmers has been dropping steadily _ the tobacco that brought in about $900 million in 1999 plunged to $431 million by 2003.
So beginning this year the federal government abandoned the quota program instituted in 1938 that determined who could raise tobacco and how much could be grown while assuring producers of a base price. The warehouses where the dried leaves were stored and sold are pretty much gone, leaving those who still plant burley to negotiate directly with the manufacturer and depriving cities as big as Lexington and as small as Carrollton from enjoying the sweet, musky aroma that settled in at sales time.
The Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that Bluegrass State farmers planted 75,000 acres of burley this spring _ down 31,000 acres from 2004. Poundage probably won’t drop as dramatically since it’s the larger, more efficient operations that have remained in the game, but a production decline in the vicinity of 15 percent is anticipated.
Farmers maintaining an allegiance to King Burley also won’t be seeing as much of the other long green _ money. Burley brought an average sales price of $1.98 a pound in 2004. It’s expected to drop to a little over $1.50 a pound this year. One estimate places the loss to the Kentucky farm economy this year at $165 million.
Will Snell, a tobacco economist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said the demise of the tobacco program led a lot of small farmers to abandon burley because of the new, less lucrative price structure and the end of financial security provided under the old quota program.
“A lot of them were passed the retirement age,” said Snell, who hales from five generations of burley growers in Bourbon County. “A lot of part-time farmers who grew it on nights and weekends decided to get out. It’s turned somewhat into a very business-minded profession. The larger growers are really just managers of labor. The family and community involvement isn’t there so much anymore.”
The remaining small farmers are looking to diversify, getting into everything from “raising freshwater shrimp to goats to grapes to fruit and vegetables.” For the first time in memory, Snell said, tobacco is not being grown on his family acreage this year.
“It’s different but there’s a new environment out there,” he said.
Dean Wallace, executive director of the Council for Burley Tobacco, said small farmers have become frustrated with the process.
“It’s become more difficult to raise a good crop,” Wallace said. “Drought, disease, floods, just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. There’s a lot of work involved and a lot of risk and people don’t see a whole lot of profit. We’re going to lose thousands of farmers in this state. It’s going to be a major adjustment.”
In some ways, Wallace said, Kentucky is blessed. The tobacco crop allowed the commonwealth to hang onto the culture created by institution of small, family farms long after it was abandoned by states that embraced corporate agri-business.
“We still have the family farm structure, but it’s going to change dramatically,” he said.
Pendleton said the scene actually started changing about 15 years ago when migrant labor began to displace fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in the hard, stressful work involved in planting and cutting.
“It’s been gradually getting away from the family thing,” he said, then chuckled. “I hear this a lot from people, ‘Tobacco was what made me get an education.’ ”
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)