My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Growing Tobacco

While vacationing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania recently, we were surprised to see that the Pennsylvania Amish grow tobacco. 

I’d never seen tobacco growing in the fields before.  Amishnews.com says this: “Tobacco, a labor-intensive crop which is ideal for large families, has always been part of the agricultural scene in Lancaster.  While prices vary from year to year, it tends to be an excellent cash crop.”  One local told us that they grow a green-leaved tobacco and a more yellow-leaved tobacco, but even though the practice isn’t prohibited, very few Amishmen smoke these days, “because of the health risks.” 

John Hostetler, author of Amish Society, says, “The Amish in Lancaster County started raising tobacco soon after the tobacco industry was established there, probably about 1838.  They, along with a group in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, are the only Amish in the nation who grow tobacco.”  He goes on to say that for those Amishmen who do smoke, pipe or cigar smoking is the accepted practice, with cigarettes frowned upon.   


I looked online to find out more about growing tobacco.  Wikihow.com told me that tobacco grows just about anywhere with well-drained, slightly acidic soil, 3 to 4 months of frost-free weather, moderate rainfall, and plenty of sun. 

CigarAficionado.com, in their excellent article about Amish tobacco growers, explains what happens next:  “By harvest time in August and September, entire Amish families can be seen in the fields, cutting the stalks with shears, one at a time, down a row of plants. The leaves are allowed to lie in the sun to soften, but not for too long because the leaves can burn. The wilted plants are then speared onto a four-foot-long lath. Amish parents and their barefooted youngsters stack the laths, which carry about five plants each, onto a horse-drawn cart. They then haul the plants to the tobacco shed for curing.”


 Wikihow.com said that the best curing happens in a building that is hot, humid, and well-ventilated—exactly like the conditions in the barns we saw.  It was easy to spot the tobacco barns, because of the side slats propped open to let the air circulate properly.   


CigarAficionado.com outlines what happens in the barns:  “After about two months of letting the tobacco cure, around Thanksgiving the farmers take down the laths of tobacco, its leaves turned to a deep copper.  The crop is then moved to an earthen cellar for dampening.  A few days later, the laths are taken to a stripping room where the leaf is pulled from the stalk and packaged.  It takes one person about a week to strip an acre of tobacco.”


What is the future of tobacco farming in Amish Pennsylvania?  That's not entirely clear...  CigarAficionado.com says that one big advantage the Amish have had is their low labor costs by using their families to work the fields.  But many Amish youth are turning their backs on farming and starting up all kinds of entrepreneurial micro-enterprises instead.

“Tobacco farming among the Amish is clearly declining.  You see mostly the conservative Amish raising it, clinging to traditions,” says Donald B. Kraybill, who has authored six books on the Amish.  Kraybill believes the more progressive Amish have greater religious concerns about tobacco farming because of the health issues with smoking. “The more the Amish move into the world,” says Kraybill, “the less likely they will be to raise tobacco.”


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