Archive for Monday, September 17, 2007

Tobacco farms keep plugging

Production around Weston, Mo., harks back to an earlier age

Dan Morgan looks over his small plot of burley tobacco in the golden glow of early morning. Morgan, 51, is among a few farmers in the Weston, Mo., area who still raise tobacco.

Dan Morgan looks over his small plot of burley tobacco in the golden glow of early morning. Morgan, 51, is among a few farmers in the Weston, Mo., area who still raise tobacco.

September 17, 2007

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Tobacco harvest evokes earlier era

Dan Morgan talks about harvesting tobacco. Enlarge video

Tobacco farmers working hard

Right now, a harvest is going on in northwest Missouri that you might not expect: tobacco. Enlarge video

Armando Aguirre sits down to enjoy some lunch in the drying barn among leaves harvested that morning. Growing tobacco is labor-intensive work, requiring about 200 hours per acre from start to finish.

Armando Aguirre sits down to enjoy some lunch in the drying barn among leaves harvested that morning. Growing tobacco is labor-intensive work, requiring about 200 hours per acre from start to finish.

It's hard work being a tobacco farmer.

The chopping of the tobacco stalk, stacking the leaves on spear-studded sticks, loading the sticks onto a passing flatbed truck and hanging the stalks - row upon row - in barns to cure.

It's the last part that is the most impressive - and dangerous - as workers scramble up high wooden beams to hang the leaves.

Since the start of August, it's been harvest time for Midwest tobacco farmers. It's a dirty, tiring job that requires a constant stream of labor.

From the greenhouse to the warehouse, growing tobacco requires roughly 200 hours per acre of manual labor.

For Dan Morgan, who is expecting to harvest more than 150 acres this year just north of Weston, Mo., that's a lot of work for his crew.

Weston was once called the tobacco capital west of the Mississippi.

"That doesn't say a whole lot," Morgan said. "We only raised about, and still only raise about, 1 percent of the burley tobacco."

Burley tobacco is a light colored, air-cured tobacco mainly used in cigarette production.

Yet Platte County, in the heart of which sits Morgan's farm, produces around 65 percent of all the tobacco in the state. Last year, Missouri harvested about 3.5 million pounds of the crop.

The clay-rich soil makes the stretch of land between St. Joseph, Mo., and Kansas City International Airport a prime spot for growing tobacco.

Up until a few years ago, tobacco was grown on the other side of the state line in Atchison and Leavenworth counties. Rick Abel, county executive director for USDA Farm Service Agency in Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Atchison counties, said there used to be about a half dozen tobacco producers in his region.

In 2004, a buyout program went into effect. The U.S. government no longer provided price support or supply control programs for tobacco. In return, it offered payments for tobacco farmers who stopped growing the crop.

The majority of farmers who continue to grow tobacco now contract with tobacco companies such as Philip Morris.

Abel said he doesn't think there is any tobacco being grown in his Kansas region since the buyout. The farmland is now being used for corn or soybeans.

"There's no quotas, so there is no protection for (the farmer)," Abel said. "It's just not worthwhile for them to do it."

The reduction of tobacco farms has been a trend nationwide for decades. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 512,000 tobacco farms existed in 1954 and just 56,977 in 2002.

When the tobacco market was strong, Missouri would produce nearly twice as much tobacco as it does today, said Louis Smither, co-owner of the New Deal Warehouse in Weston and a tobacco farmer.

However, a decline in smoking, an increase in cheaper foreign imports, a rise in older farmers retiring and a change in government regulations have meant fewer farms.

Farmers also struggle with finding the labor needed to harvest the crop and the barns to hang it.

Morgan said at one time it was common for many high school students to work on the end-of-season harvest. Not so any more.

Since the early 1980s, Morgan has been using immigrant labor, which was hard to come by during the housing and construction boom.

Morgan said as more landowners move away from growing tobacco and urban newcomers acquire property, there is increasing unwillingness to rent out the barns necessary to cure the leaves.

But for now, Morgan, who puts in days that start before sunup and end after sundown, is focused on getting the harvest finished before the coming frost.

"We'll be going pretty late," he said.

Comments

labmonkey 7 years, 7 months ago

Or this land could better be used growing soybeans, milo, or corn which help instead of harm people, and would be less work for Morgan. Then again, this may be a simplistic view.

Dan Alexander 7 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, cigarette smokers don't have weird rituals like cult members at all. Going out in the freezing cold in the middle of winter, usually under-dressed for the elements. Shivering while they suck in burning leaves. Sounds like Cigarette smokers are just as immersed in the occult as pot smokers.

ontheotherhand 7 years, 7 months ago

I prefer to watch the weird rituals of the alcohol drinkers.Drinking waaaaaayyyyy too much and then acting like jerks in public. And the they try to drive home . . . . . .

oldenglish3000 4 years, 7 months ago

Well well well...it's like everything do in moderation not over indulge and less be honest folks do you no what rituals are well in the case of ontheotherhand retarded reply I prefer to watch and read paranoid web surfers that criticise and enjoy somebody's else pain instead of their own insurcurities:)

kneejerkreaction 7 years, 7 months ago

MacHeath (Anonymous) says: get off your high horses, folks. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


Here, Here. "A woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."

erod0723 7 years, 7 months ago

"Tar in ones lungs is NOT healthy. Anybody who says otherwise must be stoned."

Do you mean stoned to death with actual stones, or stoned as in "Dude I'm so stoned" ?

kneejerkreaction 7 years, 7 months ago

"Tar in ones lungs is NOT healthy. Anybody who says otherwise must be stoned."


Wouldn't a tar and feathering be more appropriate?

RedwoodCoast 7 years, 7 months ago

Not sure how tobacco farming got turned into a pot discussion. But in lieu of the subject, I'll just relate my observation that hemp probably grows wild at the edges of this guy's field. That hemp is hemp that has been growing wild since 1943-44 when the government had farmers in the region begin growing it for fiber to help with the war effort. If only...

Nick Yoho 7 years, 7 months ago

These farmers could probably make a small fortune if they grew specialty organic "healthy" tobacco and sold it to health conscious hypocrites! Ha! Many here in Lawrence I'm sure! Here is a web site that thinks there is a gov conspiracy to stop people from smoking because smoking makes you SMARTER! signs-of-the-times.org

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