To the Point for 9/15/2005


IT’S THE MIDDLE OF SEPTEMBER, and as I drive around Switzerland County there are all sorts of signs that fall is coming — from pumpkins and other fall decorative items to that chill in the air as the sun escapes for the day.

Here in this county, one of the sure signs of fall has always been the increased activity in the tobacco fields. From cutting to housing, a person never had to drive very far through the hills of Switzerland County before they saw an individual or group working in a tobacco field.

In past years those images have changed slightly, as more and more we became accustomed to welcoming migrant workers here to help with the burley.

But this year there’s even something more significant. With the elimination of tobacco price supports and quotas, the yearly ritual of taking tobacco to the warehouse for auction has also disappeared. Growers now cut deals directly with tobacco buyers, who take it right from the field without going through the warehouse.

With this new program, there are still some tobacco producers here in Switzerland County, but more and more the local farmer with a small tobacco patch on the farm is fading away.

When I first moved here in the early 1980s, it seemed as though everyone had a tobacco patch. Neighbors would help neighbors; and families would work in their patch as a means of providing support.

The yearly tobacco check meant a bigger Christmas for the children; or a new vehicle for the family; or that the mortgage and the property taxes would be paid for another year.

Kids went to college from money they earned working in tobacco; and the profits from tobacco farmers went through the local economy many times over — buying groceries and furniture and gasoline and lumber and farm supplies and much, much more.

Switzerland County was an agricultural community, and it gave us an identity. We worked hard and spent long hours in stripping rooms and barn tiers; but it was how many provided for their families.

I guess the unique thing about tobacco is that it is grown, harvested, and sold in pretty much the same way as it has been for decades. For all of the technological innovations that have come into other crops on the family farm; tobacco remained with a group of workers dropping sticks and cutting plants and hanging it in the barns and then stripping the leaves by hand.

Growing tobacco is hard work, but I believe that the people involved in its production here in the county drew a sense of satisfaction from seeing their work rewarded.

And now that way of life has changed, probably forever.

Yes, there are still farmers out there who are producing burley here in Switzerland County; but more and more I talk with people who are already out of the tobacco business; or this will be their last year.

It’s a shame, really. As the tobacco growing process undergoes all of these changes, it also changes an entire way of life here in Switzerland County.

Perhaps our farmers will find new and innovative ways of producing new crops that are needed by our society; and perhaps our agricultural community will again thrive.

I hope that happens, because at our core this is a farming county. As this and others disappear around our country, we shouldn’t forget the depth of that loss.