Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century by WKU faculty member Ann K. Ferrell is now available in paperback.
The 2004 “buyout” ending the federal tobacco price support program has been the most visible event in recent years to cause enormous changes to the farming community. Tobacco farmers have struggled to weather one metaphorical storm after another, from increased international competition to new tobacco company penalties for producers who do not sell in large bales. At the same time, the social and political stigma surrounding tobacco has increased as our understanding of smoking’s harmful effects have grown. While tobacco has fallen behind corn and soybeans among the Commonwealth’s top crops, there are still over 8,000 tobacco farms across the state according to the latest Census of Agriculture, and the crop still represents a significant portion of Kentucky’s farm income. What has been overlooked in discussions about the role of tobacco, however, are the voices of the people who make their living cultivating it.
In Burley, Ferrell, assistant professor of Folk Studies at WKU, uses the stories of individual farmers to trace not only the history of tobacco cultivation, but also to illuminate the region’s complex relationship with the crop. Building on interviews and oral histories, she examines how all aspects of cultivation have changed over the years, from sewing and setting through harvesting and curing to selling and marketing. Her inquiry gives tobacco farmers a voice as they have become increasingly stigmatized by changing social attitudes toward smoking. She concludes by looking at the future of tobacco, including the problems associated with replacing it with alternative crops. In 2014, Burley was awarded the Wayland Hand Prize given by the History and Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society.
For Kentucky burley growers, tobacco farming is a livelihood that involves a mastery of traditional skills passed through generations and adapted to changing circumstances—technological, economic, social and political. The speed of recent changes, however, has been unprecedented. Local labor has largely disappeared as women and men have increasingly found jobs elsewhere, and acreages have grown. External forces, such as the end of the quota system and the shifting buying habits of the tobacco companies, have had tremendous impact on the industry, as have the technological changes in the cultivation, such as the shifts from plant beds to float beds and from hands to bales.
During this same period, public awareness of the dangers of smoking has skyrocketed, smoking rates have plummeted, and smoking in public places has become socially unacceptable, if not outright illegal. All of this has led to dramatic changes in the political, economic, social, community, and even personal meanings of tobacco, all of which Ferrell explores. As tobacco farmers are forced to diversify, many have come to view their way of life as under assault. They are being told not only to abandon tradition—both intangible knowledge and tangible resources such as equipment and land—but to abandon their masculinity, as the vegetables and flowers often replacing tobacco have traditionally been considered “women’s work.”
As one of the state’s largest cash crops, fluctuations in the market for tobacco have substantial economic consequences for Kentucky. Burley farmers are still here, and they will continue to contribute to the Commonwealth’s economy for the foreseeable future. In order to fully understand the changing nature of business, the voices of those whose livelihoods depend on tobacco must be taken into account. Ferrell brings these important, first-hand accounts to the forefront, ensuring that their perspectives are not ignored or lost.