NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE: Darrell Smith talks about the changes that he has seen in the tobacco industry since he started farming as a boy with his father. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE: Darrell Smith talks about the changes that he has seen in the tobacco industry since he started farming as a boy with his father. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)

Justin Helfrich, Madison Courier Staff Writer

Jefferson County tobacco farmer Darrell Smith remembers when Madison had a tobacco festival. He remembers the atmosphere at the tobacco warehouse in Madison where he worked until 2004, when the contract system shut it down.

"Now it's pretty much a sin if you talk about tobacco," Smith said.

Major changes have taken place in the tobacco industry in the last 15 years, from the planting methods, to the harvesting methods, to the way it is sold. Even more drastic changes have taken place in regards to how the crop is viewed.

"Tobacco is not politically correct," Smith said, "And we (tobacco farmers) all understand that."

Only a few years ago, Smith said, tobacco was a $20 million industry in the Jefferson County area. That was when the tobacco farmer had more clout in Congress, Smith said.

"Now whenever the government needs money for anything, they raise the tax on cigarettes," he said.

Smith doesn't smoke or chew. Never has. His father, who grew tobacco before him, didn't either. To Smith, farming tobacco today is more a means to an end than political ideology.

"It's been good to everybody until now," Smith said. "Sometimes you feel like sort of a black sheep when another farmer asks you what you grow. But tobacco's bought a lot of farms, and it's put a lot of kids through college."

Smith's daughter is currently in her seventh year of medical school, and his son studies business. He doubts they'll be back to take over the tobacco farm when they're through.

Smith, 48, is currently preparing for the 2008 crop. He will plant his 33-acre farm in burley tobacco.

"These hill farms are tailor made for tobacco," he said.

The land is hilly and uneven, not suited for growing corn. Smith said that farmers in Switzerland, Jefferson, and Ripley counties grow the most tobacco in Indiana. It is also some of the best.

Smith works at a receiving area for Philip Morris Tobacco Co. in Carrollton, and said that company officials have told him that the tobacco from Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky is as good or better quality as can be found anywhere.

"This is where the cream is," Smith said.

Smith grows his tobacco seedlings hydroponically for about eight weeks before he sets them out into the field. About 99 percent of other tobacco farmers have used this method since the early 1990s, Smith said.

Stacked in the tobacco barn, where the finished product will hang at the end of the season, are dozens of Styrofoam trays. Each tray contains hundreds of small compartments filled with potting soil. In each, a tobacco seedling will get its start.

Smith said that the biggest problem facing the tobacco farmer today is labor costs, and most of the technology that he uses is designed to reduce the manpower it takes to turn out his crop. To seed 33 acres of tobacco plants by hand would be a gargantuan task, but thanks to his tools, Smith can do it all by himself.

After the dirt is poured into the squares, which are less than an inch wide, Smith uses a dibble board, which has a tooth for each hole, to make a divot in the soil where the seed will lie. Then he places the seed on top of the soil. Tobacco seeds are very nearly microscopic. A plastic container smaller than a soda can holds 200,000 of them. They have been coated in a blue substance to make them visible and easier to handle, but they're still about the size of a pin head.

To place them on the float trays, Smith uses a homemade contraption that utilizes a vacuum cleaner. The contraption has a piece of clear plastic with small holes drilled in it corresponding to the small spaces in the Styrofoam float tray. The tobacco seeds fit into the holes in the clear plastic. Smith pours a handful of seeds across the plastic and turns on the vacuum cleaner. The suction pulls a seed into each of the holes. Smith then lowers the lid, turns off the vacuum cleaner and the seeds are dropped into the float trays.

Before float trays, beds would be have to be burned or gassed to sterilize the soil. The seeds would be sown by hand and then weeded out periodically by hand to maintain a conformity in their height.

Now tobacco seedlings are grown in a greenhouse, where conditions are easier for Smith to control.

The seeded float trays are set on about four inches of water. In just a few weeks, Smith said, the water below the float trays will be filled with white roots. A converted lawnmower will mow the plants to keep them at a consistent height. Smith will mow the plants five times in the eight weeks the plants will grow in the greenhouse. Toward the end of May, the seedlings will be ready to set in the field.

This will be the fourth season Smith has farmed without the quota system, in which the government would dictate how much he could grow, but would also guarantee that the price Smith got for his crop would not fall under a certain level. Now he can grow as much tobacco as he wants, but without a guaranteed price. There's no floor that the price cannot go under. There's no assurance.

This has led to the trend in tobacco farming, in which farmers concentrating more on the quantity of tobacco, rather than the quality.

"It was good until last season," Smith said.

Last year's crop was the worst since 1983, Smith said, because of drought. The lack of moisture dragged his tobacco down to the third level of quality.

"It was yellow, or high-colored," Smith said. "That dropped it 10 to 12 cents a pound."

The weather remained dry even when the harvest was over and the tobacco hung in the barn to cure, also not good for the tobacco's quality. To properly cure, a tobacco leaf needs to come "in and out of order" about six times, Smith said. This means the curing leaves need to absorb moisture from the air and respirate it back out.

Still, no other crop can give Smith the return on his acreage that tobacco can.

A good crop of tobacco will yield about 2,500 pounds, Smith said. At around $1.56 a pound, Smith can get $3,900 per acre. A good crop of corn would yield about 120 bushels per acre, Smith said. Even at $5 a bushel corn, this would only bring only $600.

"I could do something else. I'm a licensed auctioneer," Smith said. "But I like this."

Besides, Smith's infrastructure is specialized for tobacco: the green house, the tobacco bailer, the mower and the barn would be difficult and costly to convert for another purpose.

"If we don't grow tobacco, we've got a lot of scrap iron," Smith said.

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