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Vernon County farmers remember when tobacco was king

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Vernon County farmers remember when tobacco was king
Third- and fourth-generation tobacco farmers… Ryan (left) and Alvin Christianson visit in their tobacco shed. Their stripping boxes and laths will go largely unused this year. (Matt Johnson photo)

Ryan Christianson can remember watching his parents and siblings working together during hot days in June putting in the family's tobacco crop just northwest of Viroqua.

"When you're growing up, you can never wait until you're old enough to sit on that tobacco planter," Christianson said. "When you're old enough to finally do it, you wish you never had to."

Christianson is a fourth-generation Vernon County tobacco farmer. He learned the way of tobacco from his father, Alvin, and then when his two daughters were old enough, they helped with the crop.

Over the last 50 years, the Christianson family grew as much as 10 acres of tobacco per year — five acres on their own land and five acres on rented land. The money from tobacco helped put Ryan, an older brother and an older sister through college. The family was a fixture at the annual Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Expo in Viroqua.

While Alvin, now 80, plans to put a few tobacco plants in the ground this year for nostalgia's sake, this will be the first year since Ole Christianson, Ryan's great-grandfather, immigrated from Norway in the late 1800s that the Christiansons won't have a tobacco crop.

"It's sad, very sad," Alvin said. "I can't believe it's all but over. It's hard work in the hot sun, but I'm going to miss it."

There will be no traditional tobacco crop in Wisconsin this year due to the United States Department of Agriculture's Tobacco Buyout Program. The program, funded by money from tobacco companies, provides farmers with 10 years of income to help wean them from tobacco farming. The industry has an overabundance of the product. Even if Wisconsin farmers wanted to grow tobacco this year, they would not be able to find a buyer, Tim Rehbein at the UW-Extension office in Viroqua, said.

June has been the traditional month for planting tobacco in Vernon County, which has been the county with the largest tobacco crop in northern Wisconsin since the state was split into two tobacco growing zones in the 1930s. The division line is the Wisconsin River. Considerable tobacco planting and production has taken place in the southern area near cities like Edgerton, Cambridge and Stoughton. In the northern area, Viroqua was the hub for everything about tobacco for the better part of a century.

Viroqua is the home to the Northern Wisconsin Cooperative Tobacco Pool. All tobacco farmers in the northern area belong to the pool, which is basically a co-op through which their tobacco is priced and sold. The pool also administers the allotments of land on which farmers are allowed to grow tobacco. The pool's warehouse in Viroqua is on the National Register of Historic Places. During the heyday of tobacco growing in the region, the pool operated tobacco warehouses in Coon Valley, Cashton, Soldiers Grove, Chaseburg and De Soto.

"In 1936, I went with my father to a meeting at Madison East High School where the south broke away and the north," George Nettum, 84, the general manager of the Northern Tobacco Pool since 1957, said. "They agreed to separate and the buyers in the south just dissolved. Those in the north stayed together."

Nettum has a vast knowledge of the tobacco industry in Wisconsin. He grew up on a dairy farm that also raised tobacco in Edgerton in the 1930s. After graduating from UW-Madison in 1946 he became the state of Wisconsin's first tobacco growing specialist through the University of Wisconsin-Extension. In 1953, he was instrumental in forming the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Expo, a yearly event in Vernon County that celebrated all things tobacco. It ran until 1999. In 1957, he left the UW-Extension to run the Northern Tobacco Pool.

Significant economic impact

"I don't know how many guys have come up to me over the years and said, 'George, if it wasn't for you and my tobacco crop, I wouldn't own my farm,'" Nettum said. "If you had a good tobacco crop, you could buy a farm. It made that much of a difference. When the tobacco checks came in you could see it downtown."

It's ironic that the tobacco buyout program comes after the year in which Vernon County farmers received their highest price for tobacco ever — $1.75 per pound in 2004. For a crop that averages about 2,500 pounds per acre, that's $4,375 per acre. While tobacco is labor intensive, with seeding, planting, hoeing, harvesting, hanging and stripping, profits per acre far surpass that of most other crops. For example, a Wisconsin farm averages about 160 bushels per acre of corn. At $2.20 per bushel, that's $352 per acre.

The peak of tobacco production in Wisconsin was from 1916-1921. During that six-year period an average of 45,700 acres of tobacco were harvested each year. The state's tobacco harvest peaked in 1921 at 59 million pounds. But after five-straight years where harvests were high and prices reached 22 cents per pound, the price in 1921 fell to 8.7 cents per pound.

The dramatic drop in price led to the formation of the Wisconsin Tobacco Buying Pool in 1922. As farmers were given allotments of acres on which they could produce tobacco, the number of acres harvested per year steadily went down - 30,000-plus in the 1920s to 20,000-plus in the 1930s. Harvest yields were inconsistent due to storms that heavily damaged some crops, but by the 1950s acres harvested had dropped in the range of 15,000 per year. While harvests decreased, prices increased. During and after World War II, when the worldwide market for American tobacco took off and remained steady, prices were above 25 cents per pound.

Earl Gilman Jr. raised tobacco with his family outside of Viola and then his own crop for more than 20 years near Liberty. He remembers his father being paid 71 cents per pound in 1947. Although it dropped back down to 22 cents per pound in 1948, the big price in 1947 left an impression.

"We were raising 10-12 acres of tobacco on Dad's land," Gilman said. "That was some big money in 1947. If a guy spent that money right he could do a lot with that. It meant a lot to the family."

A family project

And raising tobacco was, if anything, an intense family project. Seeds were raised in seed beds, with young plants pulled out and prepared to be inserted in a planting machine and run over the ground for planting.

Alvin Christianson remembers being four years old and sitting next to his mother on the tobacco planter.

"We'd be going through the rows and I'd start dozing off," Alvin said. "She'd give me an elbow and say in Norwegian 'Sjaa der!' - which meant 'Look at that! You missed one!'"

Alvin's son, Ryan, remembers being along with the family and piling tobacco from about the time he was old enough to stand up.

"It's just amazing when you think back about those things when you were a kid and helping out with the family," Ryan said. "We'd have my older brothers and sister, and then my nieces, and then children. We had family friends and neighbors helping."

A planting machine and a tractor could plant about half-an-acre a day. Farmers with up to 50 acres of tobacco counted heavily on outside help, hired hands, and lent or rented equipment.

Once a field was planted, then it had to be tended, with regular hoeing to remove weeds. While tobacco could bring a big profit, a crop could be destroyed by worms or by a hailstorm.

After about a 60-day growing season, mature tobacco plants are harvested, taken to sheds, hung on laths and then the laths are hung so the plants could dry. It would not be uncommon for up to four different levels of workers to be hanging tobacco in a shed.

"When it came to harvest time, people who had moved away would take their vacation and come back to Vernon County to help their families out with the crop," Nettum said. "I guess for some it wasn't much fun getting a back ache on their vacation, but it was a time when the whole family would come together and some people wouldn't miss it for the world."

After the hanging tobacco dried and turned color from green to brown, "case" weather, or humid early fall weather, would soften the leaves and prepare them for stripping. The laths would be brought down from the shed and the leaves would be stripped from the stalk and then baled in a stripping box. The tobacco could then be sent to a warehouse. Tobacco can be properly stored in a warehouse for up to 10 years, Nettum said. In fact, Viroqua's main pool warehouse still has 183,000 pounds of tobacco from the 2004 crop. Nettum said most of the crop is sold about a year after it's harvested.

Quality not quantity

Vernon County's ridges and valleys made excellent tobacco land because the area was unglaciated. The glaciers of the ice age didn't reach into southwest Wisconsin leaving it with about seven-to-eight feet of black dirt that had been wind-blown into the area over thousands of years from the west.

This biological gift was damaged in some areas as farming on ridge sides caused significant erosion. However, Vernon County farmers adapted taking part in the nation's first watershed erosion control program by putting in contour strips starting in the 1930s.

Nettum said all of the varieties of tobacco grown in the northern growing area are "cigar tobacco." It is tobacco that's used in cigars, for chewing tobacco or snuff. The plants themselves are seven species of Type 55 tobacco developed by the University of Wisconsin. The crop generally matures in 60-65 days. There are 10 fewer growing days in the northern region than the southern region, but the rich soil makes up for that, Nettum said.

"The northern leaf grown in a valley was thinner and had an ability to stretch, which is exactly what tobacco buyers wanted for cigar wrappers," Nettum said. "In the north we had premium tobacco. We might not have always had as much as they did in the south, but they didn't have our quality."

Gilman was a truck driver for the Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Company from 1955-1958. He delivered Vernon County tobacco to manufacturers throughout the south and east making trips to places lithe Dothan, Ala., Lancaster, Pa., and Miami, Fla.

"They liked what we were sending them," Gilman said. "It didn't seem like much at the time to be driving all over the south delivering tobacco from Viroqua, but when I look back on it, it was going to a lot of places."

Tobacco declines

While the tobacco crop in Vernon County once was more than 5,000 acres in size, just 340 acres of tobacco were grown in the county last year. The labor-intensive crop and fewer family farms led to fewer farms growing tobacco in recent years.

"Things did change," Nettum said. "When guys had 50 acres of tobacco lately they'd have to use outside help. This brought in a lot of (itinerant) workers, which brings its own problems.

"While families still tended to smaller crops there was fewer and fewer people available to help," Nettum continued. "It has definitely been on the decline."

Wisconsin, which once had more than 40,000 acres in tobacco, saw its acreage slip under 10,000 per year regularly after 1966.

Grape project cometh

Seeing a shift away from tobacco coming, Rehbein launched a grape growing project with the help of a USDA grant in 2000. In fact, $2,000 that was left in the coffers of the Northern Tobacco Expo was donated to the project.

"We wanted to find a crop that had about the same amount of income per acre as tobacco and we were able to do that," Rehbein said. "It's been a success and more people are interested in it."

The duality of tobacco and grapes can best be seen on the Lloyd Hardy farm just southwest of Viroqua. Hardy, an agricultural teacher at Viroqua High School, was among those in the original grant in 2000. He has an acre of grapes growing on his property. The grapes are located next to his half-acre tobacco field. Hardy has a pair of greenhouses he has used to foster seedling growth for tobacco and other crops. He had some left over tobacco seeds and the greenhouse, so this year he put in a half-acre of tobacco. The seedlings were planted on Saturday.

While Hardy said he has heard there might be a market for tobacco used in bedding for organic chicken nests, he's pretty positive he won't have a traditional buyer for the crop through the pool or independently.

"There are rumors there might be a buyer for some tobacco grown down by Stoughton, but those are just rumors," Hardy said. "Think about it, if someone decided to buy some tobacco, it would make a lot of people awfully mad."

Alden Fremstad of Westby is another Vernon County farmer who has put in a tobacco crop without a buyer for it. He has three-quarters of an acre in the ground.

"It's what I know how to do - I've done it all my life," Fremstad, 82, said, while picking up some seedlings. "It's quite a little hobby. I guess I just can't let it go."

But Vernon County farmers will eventually let tobacco go. Hardy has plans to turn his half-acre tobacco field into another vineyard next year.

"This is it," Hardy said. "We're on to the next big thing."

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