In yesterday’s blog post, I shared several photos from my visit to a tobacco farm in Tennessee. Today I invited David Hayden (@DavidHayden7) to share more about tobacco farming and the tobacco harvest process. He grew up working with tobacco in Kentucky and studied the crop in college.

kentucky tobacco farming barn
Fire cured tobacco barn in Kentucky

Tobacco Farming in Kentucky

“No it’s ok, that barn isn’t on fire it’s supposed to be smoking. “

I’ve explained this more times than I can count. Well then, why is that barn smoking? This is where the conversation takes off.

Growing up in tobacco country, aka Kentucky, it was no secret that I spent the majority of my youth in the tobacco field. Unlike most crops, tobacco farming is almost a year-long endeavor. Ryan recently posted a picture of a tobacco field in TN and I immediately had flashbacks of my youth and volunteered to help explain what exactly a tobacco farmer does.

hydroponic tobacco farming
Tobacco growing hydroponically

What Does Tobacco Farming Look Like?

Let’s start at the beginning. There are two major types of tobacco; burley and dark. Burley tobacco is a lighter variety of tobacco produced more often than not for cigarettes, while dark tobacco is predominately used for chewing tobacco and cigars. Though tobacco’s predominant uses are for smoking (in some form or fashion) and chewing tobacco; there are companies out there like Kentucky BioProcessing that are utilizing innovative biotechnology techniques to find new and groundbreaking uses for the proteins produced by the tobacco plant.

The tobacco season starts in the very late winter months through the very early spring months, when tobacco plants are seeded into floating trays to begin growing hydroponically. As these plants begin to mature they are “set” (set is a term used that refers to planting in the ground) in the ground. To do this the farmer uses a tobacco “setter” (video) that is pulled behind a tractor.

tobacco farming tray
Tobacco Tray

As the plants begin to mature in the field, the rows are then “chopped” out (hoeing out the weeds) usually by hand, oftentimes hand sprayed with insecticides and later sprayed with fungicides to prevent unwanted disease and fungus. In a good year when the plant reaches approximately 5 ½ to 6 ft tall, it will bloom. When the plants are in full bloom the farmer must “top” (referring to the breaking off of the tobacco blooms) them, to ensure the majority of growth goes into the leaves because the leaves are sold by the pound.

While topping tobacco, suckers are removed from the plant as well. Suckers are shoots or growths that sprout between the leaves and the stalk and must be removed to promote leaf growth. After topping, the field is sprayed again with insecticide, fungicide, and sucker control.

bloom tobacco farming
Tobacco Bloom

Tobacco Farming and Disease

Tobacco is very susceptible to disease, fungus, and insects. For example, many areas of tobacco country are plagued with black shank. Black Shank is a fungal disease that lives in the soil causing the plant to form lesions followed by yellowing and withering very quickly. Along with diseases, tobacco worms (Hornworms) are infamous for destroying crops and must be controlled.

hornworm tobacco farming
Tobacco hornworm

How is tobacco cured after harvest?

Once the tobacco has matured it is cut and spiked on a stick. Farmers typically place 5-6 stalks of tobacco on one tobacco stick. The crop is then hung in a barn to be either flue-cured or fire-cured.

Flue-cured tobacco (typically all burley and some dark varieties) is a crop that is hung in the barn and dried (or cured) by the ambient air in and around the barn. The air is controlled by opening and closing tall narrow doors on the side of the barn.

Fire curing is a method utilized in dark varieties only. The curing process takes place in a fully enclosed barn with a smoldering fire beneath it. Essentially, fire-cured tobacco is “smoked”. Fire curing gives the tobacco a sweet smoky flavor and darker color.

Once the tobacco has cured it is taken down and “stripped”. Stripping is the process of removing the leaves from the stalk. As the tobacco is stripped the leaves are separated into three to four grades. These grades from the bottom of the stalk to the top are as follows; “trash” (or priming), “lugs, “leaf, and tips. The value of each grade increases as you make your way up the stalk. Each grade is pressed into bales weighing about 100 lbs each.

Where is tobacco grown in the United States?

Ten years ago, at this point in the process, the farmer was off to the market, (or tobacco warehouse in farming terms) to sell their crop. This is a place where farmers and buyers came together and the finished product was auctioned off. Today because of the government-driven tobacco buyout, tobacco warehouses are a thing of the past. Tobacco crops are now contracted directly to tobacco companies. The buy-out program essentially paid many farmers to stop raising tobacco, however, this settlement money runs out at the end of 2012.

To many people, tobacco is almost a “foreign” crop because it’s grown in fairly limited areas in the United States from as far south as Georgia up to New England and only as far west as Tennessee and Kentucky. Below is a list of the top ten tobacco-producing states as of 2009.

tobacco farming locations united states
Top 10 Tobacco producing states

Tobacco has been a cash crop in the US since our country was founded. With that said, in the past, tobacco crops were a great way for a small farmer to make a good living. For my family that was a form of income that we relied on from year to year. That turned into a tradition of tobacco farming for many generations. The payout from the crop is very good but like anything else, it’s a gamble if mother nature isn’t on your side.

When it’s all said and done tobacco is an industry with a history of being very lucrative however, as times changed so did many tobacco farmers. As for my family, we saw the tobacco buy-out as an opportunity to hang up the hoe to expand and diversify the livestock sector of our farm.

Thanks to David Hayden for sharing his thoughts in this guest post! I went to school with David at Oklahoma State where he studied Meat Science for his Master’s degree. He now works in the meat industry and shares great information about meat science and safety at his blog Be sure to stop by his blog and Facebook page and thank him for doing this!

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