Robertson County tobacco heritage lives on through young farmers
The drive down Hwy 25 in Robertson County is often described as a scenic route this time of year. The soy beans are turning from bright green to a mustard yellow, telling farmers that harvest is near, the roads are lined with “Pumpkin Patch This Way” signs and the tobacco barns are full of hanging burley and smoking dark-fired plants.
Robertson County has a rich history behind these barns, earning the area the title “Dark Fired Tobacco Capital of the World.” Although the numbers are not as high as they once were, tobacco farming is still a wide industry in the county. Old-timers and new comers alike, have deep roots in the art of tobacco farming, and share in its county heritage.
Fresh ground for a new beginner
Grant Garst, 17, is a young farmer that calls Robertson County home. This high school senior is a third generation tobacco farmer and is ready to have the first crop of his own.
“I’ve always loved doing it (farming). It’s one of the things I’ve had on my list to do,” Garst said.
Garst and his farming partner, Zach Jackson, 18, raised an eight-acre crop of burley tobacco this season. In the final stages of curing and stripping, they are anticipating the time to take the bales to market. Here, the young men will learn what their hard work is worth.
“I’ll be grittin’ my teeth and chewin’ my fingernails. But I’ll do it. If they don’t like it I might as well just take it all back home,” Garst said, showing his nerves about his first crop.
Garst and Jackson explained the season’s process of raising burley tobacco. The two get the ground ready and fertilized; next they get the plants in the ground; then the pair top and cut it to get it in the barns to cure. The final step is to strip the stalks and take it to Kentucky to sell. This first year they fought the weather, mostly wind and the unseasonable rain in July.
“I had to actually pump water out of the field because there was water standing everywhere…that was unexpected,” Garst said.
Despite the obstacles, Garst and Jackson made it through the season with smiling faces and pride in their work. The two have their four barns filled with the air-cured crop and are in the ending stages of stripping the stalks to prepare it for market. This year was only a start for these generational farmers. Like so many in Robertson County, tobacco farming runs in their blood and they are eagerly planning next year’s crop.
“I’ll have mostly dark and one-sucker next year. Probably no burley,” Garst explained. “(I chose burley) because they were giving out contracts left and right, and I thought for my first year I would start out with something that wasn’t worth much.”
There are several varieties of tobacco, grown in states such as Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee. According to tobaccogrowerresearch.com, Burley is used mostly for cigarettes, with Tennessee producing about 12 percent of the US production. Tennessee is also known for its production of dark-fired tobacco, used for chewing, snuff, cigar and pipe blends. Its curing process is recognizable by the smoky barns dotting the region in the fall season.
Politics plowed through the land
For centuries Robertson County farmers have had to comply with regulations set on tobacco growing. This crop is so rooted in the land; it caused war and created a social culture specific to the area. From Black Patch Wars to government buy-outs, this crop has been the center of political attention more than once.
In the early 1900s, Robertson and Montgomery County and neighboring areas in Kentucky were plagued by violence brought on by the Black Patch Wars. Tobacco farmers had great unrest with the low price for their crop and turned to violence as a result. Night riders would pour salt on tobacco beds, killing the plants, destroy fields and burn barns of those who would not join the cause to stand up for higher prices, says tn4me.org.
More recently, 2004 brought what became known as the Tobacco Buyout Program. The Southern Legislative Conference summarizes the program as one that “pays quota owners to choose to enter into a payment contract at $7 per pound of basic quota owed in 2002…Payments to quota holders and growers are to be evenly distributed into 10 annual payments, beginning in 2005.”
At a time when a predicted one half to three-quarters of tobacco producers would cease production during the buyout decade, Garst and Jackson did the exact opposite. They stayed in tune with their roots and plowed a new field in their family heritage.
Robertson County, the Dark-Fire Capitol of the World, will keep its smoky barns as long as young farmers like Garst and Jackson continue the tradition of its land.