Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It's tobacco harvest time in Wisconsin, even though many people don't even know it grows here

Wisconsin Tobacco Harvest
I saw this on the way to work this morning -- a scene that was more common when I was a kid. Back then Wisconsin tobacco was grown as cigar binder leaf, and the crop was sustained by Depression era-price supports. Earlier, Edgerton in nearby Rock County called itself "The Tobacco Capital of the World." Many of the beautiful brick tobacco warehouses remain today.
By the turn of the century, Edgerton was referred to as "The Tobacco Capital of the World," with tobacco barons coming to the area to buy and sell the commodity. Only a few of the original 52 tobacco warehouses, made of locally produced brick, still stand, but several of those which remain are being used for the storage of tobacco and for other local businesses. To this day, the Edgerton community celebrates annually Tobacco Heritage Days.
The The Edgerton Heritage Days website (someone must have told them that having "Tobacco" in the name was not good PR in this day and age) has additional information about the history of this local crop. Until recently it was a history of decline.

The Wisconsin leaf was made obsolete for cigars by a new cigar-making process. The little bit that was still grown went into snuff and chewing tobacco products instead. Price supports declined, and public awareness of tobacco health risks didn't help. Who needed the hassle? The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently reported on the extent of the decline:
Overall tobacco production in Wisconsin has plummeted to the point where it's barely measurable in the $5.6 billion a year state agricultural industry.

Sixty years ago, the labor-intensive crop covered nearly 30,000 acres in the state. Today, that has shrunk to about 1,000 acres and is confined to a few small regions, including Dane, Rock and Vernon counties.
That may be changing. The Journal-Sentinel reports that Philip Morris is signing contracts for burley tobacco for cigarettes with Wisconsin farmers. Today there are 200 acres in burley. Two years ago there were none. It turns out that Wisconsin grown burley has (somewhat) lower levels of carcinogens than the southern variety. It has to do with our long, relatively cool growing days as compared to southern states. Who knew?

1 comment:

leedav said...

So interesting!