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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Sticking with tobacco: Dane County farmers still harvest the classic cash crop
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Credit:Ellen J. Meany

It's a hot morning in late August. Outside of Stoughton, rolling fields of soybeans are shifting to golden yellow. The seas of feed corn are light brown, shrinking in anticipation of harvest. On a handful of farms, velvety green leaves peek from between the rows of corn and soy. It's tobacco.

"I don't grow it for the money anymore," Eric Stokstad says. He's shuffling an old deck of cards at the kitchen table in his three-story Victorian farmhouse on U.S. 51, about six miles east of Stoughton. It's a big room, with modern stainless appliances and dark woodwork; the ceiling must be 12 feet high. "It's about the tradition now."

It's a tradition that's disappearing fast. Today there are fewer than 100 tobacco growers in Wisconsin, down from thousands just 20 years ago. More than half the growers are in Dane County, still the state's tobacco king.

Tobacco roots run deep in this region, where late 19th-century Norwegian immigrants latched onto tobacco as a good source of cash. Demand was high, and kids to work the labor-intensive growing cycle were plentiful.

Eric Stokstad's Norwegian great-grandfather built his farm in the town of Albion in 1881. When Eric bought it from his dad's cousin in 1981, he says, "it was 100 years old and 100 acres." A two-acre "tobacco base" -- the quota imposed on the land - came with the farm.

Stokstad, now a youthful 55, started growing back in seventh grade. "You didn't need a huge investment to start," he chuckles, "only a strong back and a weak mind." It was a way to make money, and it kept him in shape. "I wasn't really into any sports, but I could grow tobacco."

By the time he was a high school senior, he was managing 18 acres, including the family's two-acre quota. He rented allotments from 13 other farms. As with most farmers here, the plant he grew was destined for chewing tobacco.

The tobacco companies, relates Stokstad, would "discuss what they had and what they needed, and if there was too much, they'd make adjustments," raising or cutting the quota accordingly. If you brought in a crop, you'd get paid. If you skipped a season, you could lose your base.

Stokstad topped out at 60 acres, which proved to be too much; he made the most money when he managed just 30. Now he's growing six and a half acres, which he works with his son. He's ambivalent about continuing. "You always remember the last crop," he says, and the 2009 harvest was excellent. "So I grew it again this season. I don't know about next."

Edgerton is perched on the border of Rock County, overflowing into the southeast corner of Dane. From the 1870s on, tobacco brokers from around the world gathered there to grade and price crops, and pay growers in cold cash. The promise of tobacco was instrumental in bringing through the rail lines, which helped the industry thrive. Edgerton was a center of the action and Stoughton followed its lead, building tobacco warehouses along its own railroad tracks.

Many of these colossal buildings, supported by old-growth timber, have been adapted to new purposes. Stoughton's Tobacco Junction building was home to Stella's Speakeasy and now houses the city's Center for the Performing Arts; across the street is the huge Stoughton Antique Mall. In Madison, the Tobacco Lofts on West Wilson Street are apartments, christened Lorillard Court after the makers of Newport cigarettes.

In 1905, Wisconsin's tobacco harvest reached 70 million pounds. Tobacco was so important as a cash crop it was nicknamed the mortgage lifter. "In some old pictures, the tobacco sheds look better than the house," Stokstad says. "The house didn't pay the bills." Neither did the row crops. Even now, tobacco can gross between $3,000 and $4,000 an acre, compared to $500 to $800 for corn.

The 1920s brought boom and bust to the state's tobacco communities. By the time the Great Depression hit, farmers of all stripes were reeling under the pressure of the fickle open market. The inconsistency displayed by big-tobacco buyers, who could choose to reject entire crops, was fueled with stockpiled supplies.

Cigarettes made from Carolina and Virginia tobacco took the lead in sales, further depressing the market for Wisconsin's type of chewing tobacco. (That spitting was blamed for spreading tuberculosis didn't help.)

An effort to create a growers' cooperative to pool crops and counter the power of the corporations was fatally flawed. Competition and distrust between farmers came to a head when the per-pound price, which hovered near 20 cents through most of the 1920s, dropped to 8.4 cents in 1931.

With the Depression threatening farm livelihood and the nation's food supplies, Washington had to act. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the first commodity price-support legislation, included tobacco. The program balanced supply and demand, guaranteed a price, and held production below what it might have been, which translated to higher market prices.

The end of this support system in 2004 spurred a drastic drop in the number of acres of tobacco grown here. But those who want to grow it still do. And they make okay money doing so.

Stu and Laurie Slinde's farm sits at what the locals call Four Corners, the juncture of four southeastern Dane County towns: Pleasant Springs, Christiana, Albion and Dunkirk. The neat two-story house looks new, and the two enormous tobacco sheds definitely are. They're modern red steel structures with buttresses inside and convenient swinging shutters. Just beyond are two big poly-covered greenhouses. The spiky remnant of an oak tree in the front yard hints at the reason the farm feels new. It was in the path of the Stoughton tornado in 2005.

On the last Sunday in August, a warm gusty wind is blowing across the Slindes' screened-in deck. Stu's mom, Susan Slinde, has joined Stu and Laurie to talk about their family's tobacco heritage. The Slindes grew nine acres this season, and the plan was to harvest it over Labor Day weekend. Susan has brought scrapbooks with dozens of newspaper clippings and faded color pictures of flaxen-haired teens planting, harvesting and feasting.

Susan, who hails from an extensive Norwegian clan, grew up on a farm near Stoughton. "I married Keith because I wanted to be a city girl," she smiles, her bright blue eyes twinkling. Keith Slinde's dad opened Slinde Interiors, a shop on Stoughton's Main Street, back in 1940.

"We were having some trouble making ends meet," Susan explains. "Keith said we could grow tobacco for a couple of years, just to pay off some bills." That was 50 years ago. "We've been doing it ever since."

"It's a hobby," says Stu Slinde. Laurie disagrees: "It's not a hobby, it's hard work!"

But unlike Stokstad, who also grows corn and soy, the Slindes stick to tobacco. They're still in the flooring and remodeling business, and Susan was a teacher who retired from Stoughton schools 12 years ago. If it weren't for their Norwegian roots, tobacco growing would seem an unusual sideline for the family enterprise.

Instead it seems only natural. "It brings people together," Susan says. She and Laurie chat about cooking the big meals on harvest days for family, friends and helpers, and what they're planning for this season's festivities.

Stu talks about the satisfaction he feels when the job is done, and the character-building hard work. "It really separates people. Some just won't do it." But back in the '70s and '80s, it was a guaranteed summer job for many local teens. Hot harvest days brought out girls in swimsuits, "and the boys would follow," Laurie laughs. She mentions the year "the cheerleaders tried to do tobacco and they got fired by Old Man Gallagher."

Then there was the couple who brought their kids to local harvests every year, and tied them up to the silo in lieu of daycare. "If they could get themselves untied, they could come work in the field," Stu recalls. "One of them told me later he used to get free right away, but he'd tie himself back up before his parents came back."

The teens who toughed it out made good money. "Some even paid for college," Susan says. She tells of one young man who returned for a visit from California, where he has a construction business. "We hadn't seen him in 25 years or so. I don't think I would have recognized him." But he stopped into the Slinde store on Main Street and walked up to Keith. "I want to shake hands with the man who taught me how to work," he said.

Nowadays, the labor is more itinerant. For the nine acres, Stu will hire 20 to 30 people. "It's not hard these days," he says. "They call us." It's a multicultural scene, with a mix of Hispanic, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and even a few Norwegians, including nephews and friends. With so many people on hand to help, says Stu, "It's amazing what you can get done."

Almost all of the tobacco grown in Dane County today is for chewing, and the buyers are Swedish Match, a Scandinavian conglomerate, and Lancaster Leaf, part of an American company headquartered in Richmond, Va., and named for the county in Pennsylvania where Amish and Mennonite farmers have cultivated tobacco for centuries.

Forward contracts for this year's crop are at $1.90 per pound. But the total weight the companies have agreed to buy is just 16,000 pounds, down from 18,000 pounds in 2009. "It's good, because we know they will buy what they say they will buy," Stokstad says.

Labor is still the most expensive part of the equation. "You can count on spending 280 hours of labor for each acre. A decent crop might make me $20 for each hour I put in. If it's crappy, I make nothing."

Just before noon on Labor Day, the Slinde farm is hopping. Rain delayed the harvest until Saturday afternoon, and by Monday, only a third was done.

In the kitchen, Laurie washes apples while Susan shows off the home-baked cookies and the crockpots filled with Italian beef. Keith is relaxing in a recliner, and Laurie's mom is helping set up the buffet. A friend stops in and relates the scene from another local farm, where they left several separate squares of plants unpicked in the field. She thinks they're planning to have a contest to see who could do it the fastest. Susan had mentioned how competitive tobacco people can be.

Outside, the harvest is at full throttle. Stu is in his pickup, pulling wagonloads from the field and hauling them inside the shed. There, one man balances on the rafters, and from the wagon below, another hands him the laths of tobacco with a swish, to hang across the poles.

The tobacco will hang until around Thanksgiving. "I love it when it's hanging in the shed," Susan says. "It feels like velvet, just before stripping, and it smells really good. It smells like money."

But the Slindes expect tobacco farming to continue to diminish, as those sentimental few who grow it fade out. "I definitely think it will be gone eventually," Susan says wistfully. Then she brightens up. "We've been thinking about growing hops instead."

[Editor's note: Eric Stokstad's name has been corrected in this article.]

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