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.)
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.
Here starts part two of “Into the Driftless – Growing Tobacco.” (Click to read Part 1.)
Both George and Jim were members of the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Cooperative. Jim joined in ’72 and was a member until it dissolved.
“The government was very generous with tobacco coops, in part, because it was such an important financial lifeline for the very small farmers. So tobacco had a certain degree of protection.” – George
The tobacco farmers were allotted a certain amount of acreage to grow on as part of a supply and demand management plan.
“I think it was one of the only commodities probably that ever had a successful supply-management plan where each farm had an allotment for how much you could produce. And every 5 years, the members all voted whether to continue the allotment process or just open it up to free market. And it was always approved to continue.” – Jim
An FSA (Farm Services Agency) officer would check farms to make sure they were within their allotment. If they were found to be over, the extra acreage would have to be destroyed.
Once the tobacco was harvested, cured, and stacked into bales, the tobacco farmers would deliver their crop to the cooperative’s warehouses. The warehouses in Viroqua have since been converted to other uses.
“Delivery day was always a big day… You go in with your truck load of tobacco. There’d be 20-40 trucks ahead of you. Everybody would shoot the shit and go to the coffee shop afterwards. And that was your big day. You waited all year-long for that delivery day. Didn’t get your check that day but you were counting your money already. You’d count your bales. It was a real high-point of the year. Exciting.” – George
So what happened to all the tobacco farming?
“The market went away. You’d never seen an industry disappear as fast as the tobacco industry.” – Jim
“Evaporate… Part of that was, the tobacco industry kind of had a gentlemen’s agreement to buy 50% tobacco domestically. And that was a lot. The US had the quality, but obviously, overseas there was cheap labor. And then I would say, either the gentleman part left or the quality overseas got so much better. They just dropped us.” – George
Jim credits the leadership of the tobacco pool in keeping it going as long as it did. The industry was, also, affected by the anti-smoking campaigns of the 80’s and 90’s.
“George Nettum, the manager for 54 years, was a very diligent promoter of tobacco and the culture.” – Jim
Nettum worked with the University of Wisconsin. Jim remembers that, at one point, the University had three plant breeders. Tobacco was a large contributor to the economy of Wisconsin. Dane County was the top tobacco producing county, followed by Vernon County. Tobacco is so particular to soil types and climate, that these two counties grew separate strains; Type 54 in Dane County and Type 55 in Vernon County.
“It’s a lot like wine that way. You can take Turkish tobacco and plant it here and grow it, and it just does okay, maybe. But it doesn’t taste anything like Turkish tobacco. It reflects the environment it’s in. Tobacco is sensitive that way.” – George
“At the end there when there were more sheds than tobacco, you could go around and take your pick and rent peoples’ sheds. And we definitely had favorite sheds that were much better than others. One of our neighbors had built a shed, and ten years later, it blew over in a storm. So when they built the second shed, they built it like a tank- the strongest shed. And that was our favorite shed.” – Clovis
Both Jim and Clovis agreed that part of the reason tobacco farming lasted as long as it did in the Driftless was due to the geography. The 80’s were a time of “get big or get out” in farming, but the steep hills and small valleys of the Driftless area restricted how big a farm could get. The farmers of the area had extra motivation to put energy into an alternative, such as tobacco farming, and to keep it alive.
“Every one of those valleys that you drive through, some of them are just growing up to weeds and abandoned, they all had a family and a small farmer. That valley ground was very productive, raising very good quality tobacco. That’s how those families survived with 15 to 20 cows and 4 to 5 acres of tobacco. That’s how they paid for the farm, raised and educated their children… Once that tobacco crop went away, so did the valley farms.”– Jim
Yet, the tobacco sheds linger. Some neglected, some cared for, and some still put to work. They all add to the nostalgia of the countryside and serve as reminders of Driftless history.