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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 penalties for producers who do not sell in large bales. At the same time, the social and political stigma surrounding tobacco has increased as the public’s 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 more than 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: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, Ann K. Ferrell uses the stories of farmers to trace not only the history of tobacco cultivation, but to illuminate the region’s complex relationship with the crop. Building on interviews and oral histories, she examines how aspects of cultivation have changed over the years, from sowing and setting through harvesting and curing to selling and marketing.
She concludes by looking at the future of tobacco, including problems associated with replacing it with alternative crops.
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 present, and they will continue to contribute to the state’s economy for the future. Ferrell brings tobacco farmers’ important, first-hand accounts to the forefront, ensuring that their perspectives are not ignored or lost.
Ann K. Ferrell is assistant professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University.