Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century

By Ann K. Ferrell. 2013. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. 328 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8131-4233-3 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

[Review length: 1140 words • Review posted on December 17, 2014]


[Cover ofBurley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century]

Tobacco has existed in its present form for at least 8,000 years. Two millennia ago, it was in widespread use throughout North and South America, long before Europeans first learned to cultivate the plant over 400 years ago. In the four centuries since John Rolfe planted his first crop in Jamestown, the history of this uniquely American cultigen has had enormous effects on world history. Today, it remains an important cash crop in numerous states. Ann Ferrell’s study of the occupational folklife and industry’s recent history as it pertains to contemporary tobacco culture in central Kentucky contributes to our understanding of the continued importance of the crop in contemporary life. Although her book includes mention of different kinds of tobacco, the author focuses on the history and culture of burley tobacco in the state most identified with this major variety of the crop.

The book is organized into three parts. The first section provides an excellent portrait of ways that tobacco has been grown in the recent past and a thorough treatment of the most significant changes in planting, tending, harvesting, and marketing the crop as practiced seven years ago when she conducted most of her fieldwork. The second section explores shifting meanings of tobacco. Ferrell aptly explores the rich history of tobacco farming, and demonstrates how the prestige of the crop has changed since the anti-smoking movement of the 1960s. The final section analyzes the history and culture of tobacco through the lens of rhetorical theory. Derived heavily from Kenneth Burke’s analysis of terministic screens and the place of identification within discourse, Ferrell focuses on the importance of heritage rhetorics. This approach allows her to articulate ways that tobacco farmers respond to major changes in the production and marketing of their product. Her research helps readers understand complexities within the history of growing tobacco, and her conclusions point to wider areas of inquiry for those interested in the history and culture of small-scale agriculture.

Some of the most compelling parts are in the three chapters that comprise the first section of Burley. Even though there is a long history of tobacco farming in Kentucky, it’s important to note that this is a dynamic agricultural tradition. Ferrell provides an excellent discussion of a range of new practices that have changed the way tobacco is grown. One of the major innovations that she documents is the shift from growing the young plants in one hundred foot by twelve foot sections of the field called “plant beds.” When it came time to “set tobacco,” the plants were pulled from the ground and transplanted into the field. This arduous work has been made easier and more efficient by the virtually universal adoption of “water beds” or “float beds” in which the seedlings are raised in containers filled with water and then planted in the soil. This shift took place by the 1990s, and it is but one of the many changes in the techniques used for growing the crop.

Another major change that Ferrell discusses is the shift in ways that farmers package tobacco for marketing. This is one of the most compelling sections of the book. Her documentation of the activities in a tobacco farm’s stripping room is a fascinating account of the occupational folklife of the stripping room. Early tobacco farmers stripped leaves from the plant and tied the leaves into small bundles called “tobacco hands.” Many of the older farmers readily demonstrated to Ferrell how to tie these hands, and they also explained how they made different grades of tobacco by determining which leaves were preferable for various uses. There is a unique lexicon within this practice, and Ferrell discusses the division of labor and protocol used in producing the various grades. Although tying tobacco into hands is now an obsolete method of processing the plant for sale, the stripping room remains a vibrant place within the industry. It’s important that this study includes such a thorough documentation of this phase of production, and there is ample room for continuing to document the social history and contemporary cultural dynamics of tobacco farmers.

The book provides a sympathetic discussion of ways that farmers have experienced both continuity and change within their industry. Whereas the cash crop was once a stable source of income that augmented income on the farm, its production now faces an uncertain future. In the past, profits raised from tobacco often were the source of income for supporting major expenses, such as children’s college education – or even the family farm’s solvency. In the present, major shifts in regulation and agricultural support have made the crop less profitable. It is to Ferrell’s credit that she doesn’t offer facile moralizations about the ethics of growing a crop that is hazardous to one’s health. At the same time, she does touch on ways that farmers explain their own moral and ethical reasons for continuing to grow the crop. These explanations are important. They illustrate deeper values that are relevant to wider ethical conundrums in contemporary society. The more interesting issues, however, can be found in how she explores the place of the industry within various families who have a long history of raising a crop that requires in-depth local knowledge to bring to market. This knowledge is linked to perhaps even deeper values that are evident not solely on Kentucky tobacco farms but also within other communities that are threatened by outside political and economic forces.

The initial section of Burley yields a clear and vivid portrait of tobacco farming in the early 2000s. The later sections provide an analysis of her oral history and folklife study. Ferrell explores how tobacco growers have responded to the changes in the industry, by interpreting how this aspect of Kentucky’s agriculture is understood by the public versus how the growers, themselves, think about their work as tobacco farmers. There are some interesting aspects of her analysis that may surprise people unfamiliar with rural culture. For example, many Kentuckians, even those within agricultural fields, tend to historize tobacco growing as a bygone element of the state’s past. Ferrell shows that the industry remains vital, and that it is adapting to various changes that threaten its existence. This theme is important to recognize in that outsiders tend to label farmers as resistant to change, but her research affirms that the farmers are quick to adopt new agricultural methods if they fit their contemporary needs. The study’s conclusions are especially strong when Ferrell explores what is at stake when the crop is now conceptualized more in terms of heritage values rather than primarily as an economic necessity. Referencing important scholarship on heritage discourse, Ferrell shows both the advantages and the pitfalls of using heritage rhetoric to understand culture. Her research will encourage readers to think about her finding’s relevance to similar changes in rural communities.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.