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Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century

Ann K. Ferrell

Publication Year: 2013

Once iconic American symbols, tobacco farms are gradually disappearing. It is difficult for many people to lament the loss of a crop that has come to symbolize addiction, disease, and corporate deception; yet, in Kentucky, the plant has played an important role in economic development and prosperity. Burley tobacco -- a light, air-cured variety used in cigarette production -- has long been the Commonwealth's largest cash crop and an important aspect of regional identity, along with bourbon, bluegrass music, and Thoroughbred horses.

In Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, Ann K. Ferrell investigates the rapidly transforming process of raising and selling tobacco by chronicling her conversations with the farmers who know the crop best. She demonstrates that although the 2004 "buyout" ending the federal tobacco program is commonly perceived to be the most significant change that growers have had to negotiate, it is, in reality, only one new factor among many. Burley reveals the tangible and intangible challenges tobacco farmers face today, from the logistics of cultivation to the growing stigma against the crop.

Ferrell uses ethnography, archival research, and rhetorical analysis to tell the complex story of burley tobacco production in twenty-first-century Kentucky. Not only does she give a voice to the farmers who persevere in this embattled industry, but she also sheds light on their futures, contesting the widely held assumption that they can easily replace the crop by diversifying their opera-tions with alternative crops. As tobacco fades from both the physical and economic landscapes, this nuanced volume documents and explores the culture and practices of burley production today.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Series Foreword

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pp. ix-x

In the field of oral history, Kentucky is a national leader. Over the past several decades, thousands of its citizens have been interviewed. While oral history is, of course, only one type of source material, the very personal nature of recollection often discloses hidden aspects of history. ...

A Note on Transcription

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

No project can be completed without the input, support, and assistance of many individuals and institutions. This is especially true in the case of one based on ethnographic fieldwork with those who are the experts on the topic. Most of all, I am grateful to the farmers and farm family members, tobacco warehousemen, ...

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pp. 1-36

Frequently over the past decade, I have heard Kentucky natives comment with sadness on the changing landscape of their home state: the countryside of childhood will soon be gone. The links between land and culture, sense of place, history, and identity have been widely acknowledged.1 ...

Part 1: The Burley Tobacco Crop Year, Then and Now

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Introduction to Part 1

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pp. 39-42

It’s a late winter day in March 2007, and when Keenan Bishop, county extension agent, and I get out of my pickup truck at a Franklin County, Kentucky, farm, we are immediately encircled by two curious but friendly dogs, including a tiny dog I will come to know as Buster. ...

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Chapter 1. Sowing the Seeds and Setting the Tobacco

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pp. 43-64

The work that Martin was engaged in on that March day when I first met him was the preparation of the beds in which his tobacco plants would germinate and grow. Because tobacco seeds are too delicate to plant directly in the field, they must be started in a protected environment and then transplanted. ...

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Chapter 2. The Harvest through Preparation for Market

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pp. 65-98

In preparation for cutting, tobacco sticks—wooden sticks, about four and a half feet long and three-quarters by one inch in diameter, hand-split or manufactured, that will hold the cut tobacco—are dropped in the field. Most often they are loaded onto a platform on the back of a highboy where at least two people stand or sit (depending on the highboy), ...

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Chapter 3. Taking Tobacco to Market

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pp. 99-112

The auction system developed and evolved over the centuries but was basically in place by the early twentieth century. Throughout the century, the opening of the market season was an important event marked by local festivals and widely covered by the media. ...

Part 2: The Shifting Meanings of Tobacco

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Introduction to Part 2

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pp. 115-124

In my early fieldwork with tobacco producers I learned that tobacco is most often talked about in terms of change. Through my ethnographic research I learned about a range of changes that have taken place on tobacco farms—from technological innovations to new marketing practices. ...

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Chapter 4. Tobacco’s Move from Self-Evident to Self-Conscious Tradition

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pp. 125-144

Between the early 1940s, when the Kentucky Department of Agriculture began publishing a newsletter, through the 1960s, the KDA’s coverage of tobacco quickly became increasingly self-conscious as threats to tobacco increased. Although the “health scares” began in the early 1950s, they were not directly remarked upon until the release of the surgeon general’s report in 1964. ...

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Chapter 5. Tobacco under Attack: Hello, “Heritage”

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pp. 145-180

A 2003 editorial lamented, “They tell us change is good, and we generally don’t shy from it. But when change causes the demise of a tradition, it’s a sad thing. Tobacco is not the most politically correct crop in the world, but it is such a huge part of our history and heritage.”1 ...

Part 3: Raising Burley Tobacco in a New Century

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Introduction to Part 3

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pp. 183-192

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the social and political meanings of tobacco have undergone extraordinary changes. As this extension agent pointed out, however, not only have the meanings of tobacco changed, but so too has the status of the tobacco farmer: there is now a “stigma.” ...

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Chapter 6. “Now is the good old days”: Burley Tobacco Production and Nostalgia

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pp. 193-214

Living in Kentucky, I came to understand that most people have family ties to tobacco, and many worked in tobacco as children or young adults. This is not surprising; I was repeatedly told that at one time “every little farm” had a tobacco base, and indeed, throughout the twentieth century tobacco was grown on most Kentucky farms. ...

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Chapter 7. “Why can’t they just grow something else?” The Challenges of “Replacing” Burley Tobacco

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pp. 215-242

According to the author of a review of James Baker Hall and Wendell Berry’s Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy in the Lexington Herald-Leader, subtitled “Harvesting Our Heritage,” “Tobacco growing is going, done in first by health concerns, then by the global economy and cheap imported leaf.”1 ...

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pp. 243-252

Much has changed in the Burley Belt since the major period of my research, the 2007 crop year. Tobacco companies—with Philip Morris in the lead as the largest burley buyer—have stopped offering incentives to farmers who fulfill their contracts, they have cut many growers’ contracts significantly or entirely and increased others, ...


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pp. 253-282


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pp. 283-294


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pp. 295-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780813142357
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813142333

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series
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OCLC Number: 851697502
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Burley

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Burley tobacco -- Kentucky.
  • Burley tobacco -- Kentucky -- History.
  • Tobacco farms -- Kentucky.
  • Tobacco farmers -- Kentucky -- Biography.
  • Oral history -- Kentucky.
  • Tobacco -- Social aspects -- Kentucky.
  • Social change -- Kentucky.
  • Kentucky -- Social life and customs.
  • Kentucky -- Economic conditions.
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