One of the most beautiful and relaxing of my bike routes follows County S between Westby and Viroqua. To get there, I start on County P (off of Highway 27) which gradually descends into the valley. When County P intersects County S, I turn south winding through the valley floor, exposed to the morning sunshine. Most of the open land between the road and the steep hillsides is in pasture, with one impressive field of cabbage cared for by an Amish family. There are plenty of farm homes and barns just off the road, but I also notice several structures that look abandoned or somewhat dilapidated.
For one who did not grow up around here, these just seem like ordinary old barns that are no longer useful to the landowner but too bothersome to take down. But then I look closer, and notice some unique characteristics shared among them, such as hinges on every other side board and vents on top. And then you start to notice that this type of “barn” is common in the area. Had it not been for the old tobacco warehouses in Viroqua, I may not have put two and two together. These old, under-used structures are tobacco sheds.
Wait, you can grow tobacco in Wisconsin? I had always thought of tobacco as mainly a southern crop, like cotton. Apparently, at the peak of tobacco production in Wisconsin, which was from 1916-1921, an average of 45,700 acres of tobacco were harvested each year (Vernon County 1994). While it’s common to come upon a tobacco shed, these days, it’s rare to see a tobacco field. (I believe I’ve seen one in all my biking adventures in the area.)
I had heard that CROPP’s model had been based on the tobacco cooperative’s model, particularly the Northern Wisconsin Cooperative Tobacco Pool. To learn more about the area’s tobacco history, I hoped to find an Organic Valley farmer who once grew tobacco. Fortunately, two of CROPP’s founding farmers, Jim Wedeberg, now our Dairy Pool Director, and George Siemon, our ‘CEIEIO’, were more than happy to talk about their tobacco growing days. Clovis Siemon, George’s son, who also helped with the tobacco growing on the family farm, filled in with his memories as well.
Jim can remember, as a kid, working in a tobacco field in the mid-50’s. Jim’s family grew 3 to 5 acres on their farm in the Gays Mills area. After moving to a farm near Chaseburg, George started growing tobacco in ’77, mostly 2-3 acres. However, George pointed out, growing a couple of acres is only half the story, because neighbors would work together to help with harvest.
“The first year we had 21 acres in my valley. The three neighbors got together and we all went from field to field to field and harvested tobacco for almost 30 long days. Neighbors didn’t pay each other, they exchanged help. You spent a day over there and they spent a day over here. So it was not just what you grew, there was a neighborly-ness to it that made tobacco special.” – George
Tobacco is an extremely labor intensive crop, which practically necessitates the neighborly teamwork.
“Tobacco is a series of steps. We used to joke that the tobacco season was 12 months and you’d get one big check. (Wasn’t quite 12 months.. more like 10). Step after step after step. But that’s what was neat; everyone was doing the same thing at the same time. Everyone was waiting on the steam or everyone was cutting, depending on the stage. Again, the community part of it was the surprising value of tobacco. It had a real community value.” – George
First the tobacco seeds would be planted in beds that had been steamed. A hired boiler would go from farm to farm and steam the ground to kill off any weeds before planting the seeds. Once the plants were several inches tall, they would be transplanted into the fields. The fields were then continuously cultivated to keep back the weeds, because tobacco does not compete well with weeds. A few weeks before harvest, the plants were topped. Topping meant breaking off the flowers and smallest leaves at the top of the plant. This would concentrate the plants energy into the remaining leaves that were to be harvested. After being topped, the plants will try to send out “suckers” that were also removed. Some growers would apply a chemical to prevent sucker growth. For those who didn’t want to use chemicals, it was more hands-on work.
“Because we were organic, (even though the tobacco was sold as conventional), we would go through and break those off too. And that’s very tedious work. Sticky.” – Clovis
Theoretically, the crop could grow in 60 days, from transplant to harvest. Jim said it usually took 80-90 days. When it was time to harvest, the farmers would take an axe and go row by row cutting every plant. Cutting would need to take place in the morning so that there would be time for the plants to wilt in the sun. When wilted, the leaves are more rubbery and easier to handle without damaging. Then, the plants were gathered into piles, similar to how the Amish stack their harvested corn stalks. Next, it was someone’s job to spear all the plants on to lathes. One lathe could hold about 6 plants.
“That’s probably where the most injuries took place because these spears are sharp and you’re pounding away. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cut yourself pretty good.” – Clovis
This culture of working together reminds me of the local Amish community, where neighbors are known to come together to build a new barn or house in just a few days. Back in the day, this coming together to help was more common.
“[Tobacco harvesting] was one of the last neighborhood culture things that would happen on the farms in the area. Because they used to have threshing bees, silo-filling, corn-shredding… well, [that] had all gone away. But the tobacco part was still there where you would actually exchange help with your neighbors.” – Jim
“For me, being the newcomer, that was awesome to step into. Plus I was young and all the old people appreciated some young person. As Jim was saying earlier, at harvest everyone has a job. The little girls will sit out there and dance and entertain you and sing songs… And old guys would spear. But then they’d put young people in the sheds. [They’d] go up the polls and hang… it took a certain person to be a hanger. I was a hanger. But that was also because I was the youngest around.” – George
Obviously, the cooperative culture was a major highlight of growing tobacco. Still, I had to ask what “the best part” of growing tobacco was. “The check” – George and Jim echoed each other. Everyone looked forward to the check. For these small farms, dairy was the day-to-day business that paid the bills and kept the farm going. However, it was the tobacco check that paid your mortgage, bought you a pick-up truck, or even helped send your kid to college.
In addition to this major reward at the end of the season, there were also daily rewards, in the edible form. Concerning the highlights of harvesting tobacco, the food received an honorable mention.
“If you ask my kids, they’d say [the best part] was the food… food was very important. You’d have a before noon coffee break, you’d have dinner, and then you’d have, I guess, lunch would be next, which is cakes and little sandwiches at about 4 o’clock. You’d have all these breaks with food.” – George
So I wanted to hear more about the role of the tobacco shed. Why the hinges on the side boards?
“Early on, people were growing binder tobacco for cigars. They were really particular about how the tobacco cured in the fall, so the shed doors would be opened in the mornings and closed at night, because they didn’t want any extra moisture from the evening dew going into the tobacco. And then you’d open the shed up again in the morning if the weather was nice. If the weather was damp and rainy, you’d keep the shed closed. So you didn’t add moisture to the tobacco as it was curing… That was a very critical part of the production of tobacco when the plant is curing down, because you can get different diseases; shed burn, pole rot and different things can come in and ruin your crop during the stage of basically the first three weeks that the crop is in the shed. When it’s going through the yellow stage, and it gets too damp, it can get damaged or ruined.” – Jim
The vents seen on top of some old tobacco sheds were for circulation. Others just had doors at the top to let air go through. However, for the last 30 years, the market demand and production had changed to loose-leaf chewing tobacco. The curing process for chewing tobacco was not as meticulous.
Once the tobacco has been hung and cured, the growers patiently waited for “case” weather. At this point, the tobacco had become so dry it would crumble at a touch. Case weather takes place early in the winter, December or January, when there is a thaw for a few days and fog fills the air. The tobacco leaves absorb the moisture in the air and become workable again.
“I remember one year we never got it, and it was a nightmare. We had to use humidifiers.” – Clovis
Finally, the tobacco leaves could be stripped (removed from the stalks) and stacked into bales, weighing about 45 pounds.
There were, of course, risks in growing tobacco. During the period that the tobacco was grown for cigar binders, one hail storm could ruin a crop.
“The leaves would be broad and ready for harvest and then you’d see the sky get dark… So a lot of people carried insurance for that reason. Because it was their income source, they depended on it to pay taxes and to make a mortgage payment. They could not afford NOT to have that check.” – Jim
Stay tuned for part two where we’ll discuss the local tobacco cooperative.