EDGERTON, WI—Just west of Edgerton, WI stood Larry Oberdeck in his 3-acre tobacco field studying his flowering crop. These flowering plants that Larry grows are a variety of tall, deep green leaves with pink flowers. Larry has grown this loose-leaf tobacco for the chewing industry and its all that he and other local growers have known for decades.
This year in 2017 many of these Edgerton, WI tobacco growers for the first time will be attempting a new tobacco and this time for cigarette production. For years the tobacco grown here in Edgerton, WI was for chewing tobacco. Over the years there has been a decline in dippers and those who chew. The new tobacco is a Maryland based tobacco known in the industry for use in cigarettes and pipes. It’s about half the size of Wisconsin grown chewing tobacco and has a different feel and touch having droopy leaves that are velvety.
Larry grew some of the Marland tobacco last year and still recalls how different it looked. “The plants, they just look different,” he said. “It’s a totally different thing.”
For decades Edgerton, WI was the hub and financial backbone for the chewing tobacco industry, thus making millionaires out of several local merchants and putting hundreds of farm kids through college. Since the 1800’s this part of Southern Wisconsin has seen a steady decline in farmers who still grow tobacco for a living.
Over the last 20 years the loose-leaf tobacco (for chewing tobacco) industry has plummeted and all that is left are a handful of farmers like Larry who are still growing tobacco on the small amount of acreage. All of the tobacco grown here in Edgerton is on contract, bought by suppliers who then sell to manufacturers.
Edgerton, WI tobacco dealer Bob Bartz works for Lancaster, PA based supplier Lancaster Leaf and he says the new Maryland tobacco is a boon for area farmers who still want to grow tobacco as a cash crop.
“The future looks pretty bright for this type of tobacco for those who want to raise it,” Bartz said. “This looks like it’s a growth part of the tobacco industry.” With world-wide demand being higher for cigarette and pipe tobacco and less for chewing tobacco it looks like Edgerton, WI based tobacco farmers are looking to switch too.
The change is being seen by nearly all tobacco farmers here, as Tom Sayre from Edgerton, WI and a local tobacco grower for over 50 years is for the site time helping his grandsons raise 5 acres of the new Maryland tobacco. Tom was told by suppliers that most of the Maryland tobacco being grown in Edgerton is sent to Asia to supply their cigarette market.
“They claim where its in big demand right now is in the Orient—southern Asia,” he said. “There’s a lot more cigarette smoking going on over there now.”
Bartz said, “A handful of growers last year tried the new Maryland variety and had luck with it. The dry, hot weather made for a particularly good growing season”, he said.
Bartz added, “Local farmers’ Maryland-variety crop fetched between $1.80 and $2.00 a pound depending on the grade. That’s comparable to prices for Wisconsin-variety tobacco, which some growers, like Oberdeck, are growing in tandem with the Maryland variety”.
Looks like about 20 Edgerton farmers are growing the new Maryland variety with many doubling their acreage replacing it with the less sought after Wisconsin chewing tobacco.
This year, about 20 farmers are growing the new variety, and many of those who grew it last year have doubled their acreage this year and replaced acreage of less sought-after chewing tobacco.
“It’s true that we’re down to fewer growers than ever, but this new (Maryland) variety is allowing those who want to grow it to stay in the game,” Bartz said.
Oberdeck and Sayre both eluded that the Maryland blend is not much more difficult to grow than Wisconsin-variety tobacco, although, unlike chewing tobacco, smoking tobacco has to be sorted in separate grades and It also has to be planted a few weeks earlier.
Oberdeck said despite the learning curve, it’s nice having a tobacco crop in the ground that’s in demand. “Sometimes change is good, I guess,” he said.
In this case its needed to keep the long lasting tradition of growing tobacco in Edgerton, WI alive and well for decades to come.
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