Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century by Ann K. Ferrell (review)
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Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century. By Ann K. Ferrell. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Pp. 309. $50.00 cloth)

Ann K. Ferrell’s work is a fascinating study of the changing world of tobacco farming in Kentucky. Through a combination of fieldwork and skillful analysis of numerous publications, most notably the newsletter of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, she presents an illuminating account of how burley tobacco, once a proud symbol of the economic strength and cultural heritage of the commonwealth, has in recent years been scrubbed from the consciousness and public image of Kentucky, and the impact this has had upon tobacco farmers in the state.

The book is divided into three sections. The first explores the mechanics of raising a crop of burley tobacco, both as it is done today and as it was done in the past. The second, which is in many respects the heart of the work, examines the shifting meaning of tobacco over time and the way in which the “thirteen month crop” (as tobacco is frequently described by farmers) has come to represent different things at different times for not only those families who depended upon it for their livelihood, but the nation as a whole. The third part provides an analysis of what tobacco farming in the twenty-first century looks like in the aftermath of the end of the government’s price support/quota program and the switch from selling tobacco at auction to selling it under contract directly to the tobacco companies.

Ferrell’s description of burley cultivation in northern and central Kentucky is enriched not only by interviews and observation, but also by her own participation in at least some stages of the work. Such first-hand experience enhances the reader’s appreciation of the physical effort, skill, and, all too often, luck required to successfully raise a crop of tobacco. Given that most readers will not be familiar with [End Page 651] tobacco farming, Ferrell’s description of it is detailed yet easy to follow.

Aware of “incongruities” between her observations in the field and the media portrayal of tobacco farming, Ferrell devotes part two of the book to a thoughtful examination of the changing social and political meanings of tobacco over the lifetime of the farmers she interviewed. Ferrell argues that the changing face of tobacco, and its significance to the farmers who raise it and Kentucky in general, can be clearly demonstrated by the content and extent of its coverage by the media. She concludes that as a consequence of its stigmatization, tobacco is beginning to be regarded as part of Kentucky’s history and that the farmers who continue to raise it will increasingly be viewed as relics from the past.

Having examined the changing universe of tobacco, Ferrell concludes her study with an analysis of Kentucky’s current relationship with the crop and the ways in which burley farmers are adjusting to the new realities of commercial tobacco farming. In doing so, she makes the deceptively simple, but important, observation that for tobacco farmers, regardless of their concerns over the loss of their heritage, adapting to change is not a new experience. Indeed, as Ferrell acknowledges, for all their nostalgia for the fading traditions of their familiar tobacco culture, the sole reason farmers in Kentucky chose to raise tobacco in the first place was because it was remarkably lucrative. As she rightly suggests, even as Kentucky begins to erase burley from its memory, farmers will adapt as necessary and continue to raise tobacco as long as it remains profitable.

Although there are aspects of burley tobacco culture, both past and present, that receive short shrift—Ferrell’s almost total focus on “tobacco men” at the expense of women and children and their role in tobacco farming is worth pointing out—the book is well written, well researched, and an important addition to the emerging body of work on this most fundamental of the nation’s historic cash crops. [End Page 652]

Jeffery A. Duvall

JEFFERY A. DUVALL is the assistant editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers and a research associate at the Institute for American...


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