To the point week of 11-3-11


I SAW SOMETHING EARLIER THIS week that took me back in time. No, it wasn’t a DeLorean with Michael J. Fox driving it, but it was certainly something that took me back.

It was a truck pulling a wagon filled with tobacco.

I’m not sure where it was heading, but I’m guessing it was going to a stripping room somewhere to get ready to be sold. As it went by, it made me think about past years when tobacco was “King” here in Switzerland County and in other places around us; and how now it’s a market that is almost forgotten here.

There was a time when Vevay Newspapers would be in the middle of tobacco season. There would be stories about how the tobacco crop was doing, and what the market prices would be when the warehouses opened for burley auctions just before Thanksgiving.

I spoke with Chuck Deputy of the Switzerland County Farm Service Agency, and he told me that prior to the tobacco buyout, Switzerland County was producing about 1,500 acres of burley tobacco each year. Now, his estimate is that the county is producing about 763 acres – right at half of where we used to be.

A more staggering figure some in the number of producers. Pre-buyout, there were approximately 150 farmers raising a burley crop.

In 2011, there are now 31 producers.

I remember a time when families would have a small base on their farm, and the family would work with the tobacco, raising, cutting, and stripping it. It would then go to the warehouse, and when it sold, the family had extra money for some Christmas presents; or money to get them safely through the winter.

It was very labor-intensive to grow tobacco, but in that, it also became a way that families – generations – spend time together.

I remember when John Keeton was the extension educator here, he always spoke about how many dollars were created locally from $1 of tobacco money.

A farmer sold his crop; then came home and paid his loan; then bought needed supplies; purchased Christmas presents or other items; bought groceries; fuel; and other items needed by his family.

Because of the business, local merchants were able to hire full-time and part-time help; and those paychecks then generated more community economy. It was a cycle; and now – with half of Switzerland County’s tobacco acreage gone, there is a real impact on the community as a whole.

There was a time when the newspaper would go to the auction barns in Carrollton and Madison and report on the price per pound and talk with local producers as they prepared to sell their crop. As a native of the “flatlands” of East Central Indiana, I had a farming background, but had no history with tobacco. I learned about tips and lugs and trash; about baskets and hands and why tobacco barns had openings in them.

But most of all I learned about how growing tobacco was almost an art, handed down from one generation to the next. How high school kids would be allowed to miss school when a local farmer needed help in his fields; and how tobacco setters would have grandmothers sitting beside grandsons.

I also learned that you have to learn not to bob your head as you spear tobacco, or you could lose an eye; and that tobacco sticks are very useful for all sorts of projects.

Some research also found that this is not just disappearing from Switzerland County.

A report from the USDA shows that there were 512,000 farms growing tobacco in the U.S. in 1954; and that number dropped to just 56,977 in 2002, with only 37,013 of those being classified as “tobacco farms” – meaning that at least 50-percent of that farm’s profits came from tobacco sales.

And that was before the buyout even took affect.

As the number of tobacco farms decreased, the average tobacco acreage per farm increased - meaning that there are fewer growers, but those producers are growing more than ever.

In Indiana in 2002, there were 1,282 farms growing 4,034 acres of tobacco; an average of 3.1 acres per farm. Today, that average per farm is up to 7.5 acres per farm.

And those big tobacco warehouses along the river and elsewhere are now nothing more than structured dinosaurs that pay homage to an industry that’s gone away. Producers now work on contracts directly with buyers, so there’s no need to take your crop to the warehouse for the auction.

There is no auction.

There is no warehouse.

It’s a shame, really. The family tobacco patch is something that has been lost and will never be recovered. We lost more than a cash crop when the buyout took burley away; we lost a way of life – a way that was passed down from parent to child.

I miss that.


By now we’re all pretty much aware of the election this coming Tuesday for seats on the Vevay Town Council and for the position of Vevay Clerk-Treasurer. There won’t be an election in Patriot, because there are just three candidates and one clerk-treasurer candidate, so they are automatically elected and will begin four year terms on January 1st.

If you’re going to the polls here, you need to remember that you have to take a photo ID with you to the polling place – all of which is taking place at the Municipal Building on Seminary Street.

If you don’t have a photo ID with you, you will not be allowed to vote, so don’t forget to stick it in your pocket before you leave home.