Ellen J. Meany
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Parts of Wisconsin are extremely conducive to growing tobacco, which especially enjoys the pH-neutral soils that cover the oak-savannah prairie, with its gravel and limestone substrata, in the south-central part of the state. But growing tobacco is tough on the land, as the plant's massive, silky leaves suck hard-to-replenish nutrients out of the soil.
For years, tobacco farmers kept using the same land because commercial herbicides used on corn and soybeans were deadly for the sensitive tobacco plant, making it hard to rotate tobacco into land used for those other crops. That's less of an issue now with soybeans in particular since herbicide-resistant seeds have grown in popularity, there is less residual herbicide in the soil.
Still, tobacco remains a "tillage intensive" crop, says David Fischer, a soil specialist at UW-Extension. This is because the soil must be soft and loose to accept the plant. And tilling the land too much degrades the soil.
On the other hand, tobacco is notably hardy, tolerating draught better than other crops. But hail is a problem: One local farmer is said to have lost a quarter of his 44-acre tobacco crop in just a few minutes last month.
Wisconsin tobacco leaf is meatier than the varieties cultivated in Kentucky and the Carolinas. It's better for absorbing flavors, and less useful for burning. The thick leaves are "dark air-cured," destined for chew, snus (small sachets of pasteurized tobacco, a no-spit option) and snuff.
The leaves hang to dry in the tobacco sheds that still dot the local landscape. These have big shutters that can be opened and closed to regulate the airflow.
Like any other crop, tobacco starts with either seed or plants. In late spring, the seeds are dampened and sprouted, then sown in raised "hot beds" of soil that's been sterilized by steaming. An ounce of seed can yield three or four acres.
When the plants grow to six inches tall, about June 1, they're ready to go into the ground. The transplanter hitches to a tractor and has a couple of seats on the back. One person drives, and two people ride on the back, dropping the balled plants into rows of soft soil.
As the crop comes up, farmers keep an eye out for problems, and pull bad plants to maintain quality. Sometime in mid-July, the plants start to flower and are ready to be "topped." The flower stems are broken off so the leaves can harness all the energy. They grow broad and long on the strong central stem, 14 to 16 big leaves per plant.
Harvesting starts in late August. Workers use a small ax to hack down plants at their base, row by row. Then they gather the plants and string them onto four-foot laths, speared through the stem with a spike.
From there, the harvest is moved to the sheds, where the plants hang to dry naturally, air-cured, through the fall. The crop is not yet guaranteed; all sorts of ailments can befall it, from shed burn, which turns the leaves black like tarpaper, to pole rot, which leaves them a slimy brown.
In late November or early December, growers wait for "case weather," the moist foggy air that softens the leaves enough to be handled without crumbling. Then it's off to the stripping sheds, where the leaves are removed one by one, sorted and laid into wooden presses, tied up and "cased" for shipping.
Buyers take delivery at the end of December or early January. Then and only then does tobacco become the cash crop it promised to be.
Correction: This story has been updated to not that gravel (not granite as originally stated) and limestone make the local soil pH neutral. And while most tobacco growers use plenty of commercial fertilizer, it is residual herbicides from use on corn and soybeans that will kill the plant, making it hard to rotate into land treated with those chemicals.