Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Growing Tobacco in the Upper Mid-West

In 1920 the following states produced commercial quantities of tobacco:
Connecticut:...44.4 million pounds
Indiana:..........19.8 million pounds
Ohio:..............60.5 million pounds
Wisconsin:......62.4 million pounds  (Source)

Even today, both Ontario (Canada) and Connecticut grow significant amounts of tobacco.

Historically, tobacco was one of the few crops that a farmer could raise on ten acres and support a family.  Political pressures concentrated tobacco growing in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.  Large portions of those states are rolling and have relatively small parcels of ground flat enough to farm.  Tobacco production was concentrated there via "market orders".  Other localities could grow as much tobacco as they wanted, but they could not legally sell it.

Taxing entities liked this arrangement because it is much easier to keep tabs on tobacco when it flows through very few pipelines.  The tax on cigarettes in New York City equates to $120/pound of tobacco.  You can see why they really don't want folks in the Bronx to realize they can grow tobacco plants at a half pound of product each.

Biologically, "tobacco" consists of leaves.  As a plant grows, it first produces leaves&stems-food storage (tubers)-flowers-seeds.  Plants that we use for seeds require the longest growing season.  Plants that we use for leaves....like leaf lettuce...require the shortest growing season.  You can grow tobacco if you can ripen tomatoes or grow sweet corn.

Perique tobacco is harvested in JUNE before it flowers.  In Michigan, Perique starts to flower in early August, still long before a frost.

Granny's Heirloom seeds

There are many heirloom tobacco varieties on the market.  My advice is to avoid them.

Modern breeders discovered that there was an extreme amount of plant-to-plant variation in carcinogen content even within the same strain of tobacco.

Modern breeders purified the commercial strains by selecting the individual plants with the lowest carcinogen levels.  One of the nice things about breeding tobacco is that you need very few foundation plants because one tobacco plant can produce nearly a million seeds.  That means that a breeder can sort through 7500 seedlings in a greenhouse (enough to plant an acre of plants) and cull all but the two very lowest plants....and still have two million seeds.  That is selection pressure!

This story has been very carefully buried.  The tobacco industry is in a difficult situation.  They cannot tell the public that they made tobacco healthier without first admitting that tobacco causes cancer.  That is a fact that they do not like to repeat.

I have grown three different strains of tobacco.  So far, the best performer has been Tennessee 90 Burley.  I would attempt to buy the seeds from Workman Tobacco Seed company because they explicitly state that they are selling the LC (Low Carcinogen) strains.  The only difficulty is that the smallest quantity of seed that Workman sells is 10,000 pelleted seeds  (enough for 1.2 acres!) and that runs about $50.

I talked to Richard at Workman tobacco (800-910-0070) and he was very friendly.  He said that they were not really set up to handle retail orders but would provide whatever customer service they could.  He suggested that early February is a good time to order tobacco seed and that you can store the seed in your freezer for several years.

"Lucky" is one of my readers in Kentucky.  Maybe Lucky can identify some sellers who are willing to sell smaller quantities mail-order.

Good luck!


  1. Interesting post. When I lived in Kentucky ('76-'79) I knew several small tobacco farmers.. Their land had an allotment of tobacco that could be sold. If your allotment was, say, 1500 lbs, that was all you were allowed to sell. Of course, you could sell to other growers who, for some reason didn't make their allotment during a given year.

    Many of those small growers depended on their "tobacco money" to make ends meet. It was, at that time, the second largest cash crop in Kentucky. Marijuana being the first. Marijuana generated substantially more profit, but at much greater risk.

    Marlboro had a large cigarette making plant in Louisville, and plenty of folks worked at the plant. They tended to hire military dependents from Fort Knox, which was just down the road. One of the benefits of working a tthe Marlboro plant was that each employee could take one carton of cigarettes out the door every day, free of charge. During those days, a GI could buy a carton of cigarettes at the commissary for $5.00, but on a PFCs salary of about $600.00 per month, every dollar counted. I bought many cartons of cigarettes out of a GI's car trunk.

  2. Joe, I don't have any experience growing tobacco, but have friends who still make the bulk of their family income doing so... Abolition of the 'tobacco base' in the 'tobacco settlement' probably rendered quite a few hill/mountain country properties, particularly in eastern KY, virtually worthless, as most of their economic value had historically been tied to the 'base'/production quota attached to that property... usually associated with the small spot of level, tillable ground where the tobacco was grown.

    Tobacco certainly bought a lot of Christmases and sent a lot of KY (and other Appalachian region) children to college. Sad to see it so viciously demonized, despite what we know to be some significant health issues associated with it... but free people should be allowed to choose...

    I can certainly inquire as to availability of seeds...seems like I've seen small packets for sale in the local farmer's Co-Op/Southern States farm stores. Husband of one of my co-workers made a big foray into growing several hundred acres of industrial hemp this year - some fiber types, some oil types.

    Over here in western KY, 120 miles or so west of where I'm guessing Pawpaw probably was stationed (Ft. Knox?)... they grow two main types of tobacco - Burley, which is harvested and air-dried in open barns, and Dark-fired... a much darker green plant, with longer leaves that is harvested, hung in barns which can be tightly closed up, and smoked over a smoldering sawdust fire on sawmill slabs... everyone has their own special choice in woods... some prefer hickory sawdust, others fruitwood.
    It's pretty alarming to the uninitiated to come upon one of those barns with smoke billowing out of cracks or roof vents... and sometimes they do burn to the ground...keeping that smoldering fire suppressed enough to smoke but not flame is an art.
    Burley is destined for incorporation into cigarette/pipe tobacco; dark-fired goes into chewing tobacco - or, at least that's my understanding.

  3. Good luck, and I'd say don't get 'caught'... :-)

  4. Good luck, and I'd say don't get 'caught'... :-)

  5. The Connecticut tobacco was primarily shade grown tobacco used in cigar wrappers. The Connecticut river valley is a super rich farmland as the lowlands flood every spring and bring fresh nutrients onto the land. The big tobacco barns used to be everywhere. Picking tobacco was a summer job for teens, much as working the fishing boats was for northwest boys. By the time I was able to pick tobacco, everyone spoke Spanish. Beautiful country, a lovely mix of rolling old hills with granite bones, woodland populated with sugar maple, shagbark hickory, elm (although gone now due to Dutch elm disease) Chestnut,( long gone due to blight), red and white oak, etc- a real mix of hardwoods and evergreens. The farm fields away from the river valleys were generally small scale, the streams clear and fast. As a boy I pulled many a eastern brook trout out of them, before the suburban sprawl covered the land.


Readers who are willing to comment make this a better blog. Civil dialog is a valuable thing.