In the Spotlight

News & Features
Farmers Celebrate Tobacco
By Brent Wolfe
February 1, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Tobacco isn't one of Wisconsin's better known products, but tobacco farmers in western Wisconsin held their annual Tobacco Exposition over the weekend in the town of Westby. It's a sort of miniature county fair to celebrate the tobacco harvest.  However this year's Expo may be the last because fewer farmers in the area are growing tobacco.

VERNON COUNTY FARMERS HAVE BEEN GROWING TOBACCO since the 1840s and, for the past 44 years, they've been bringing bales and samples of the broad brown leaves to the annual exposition where judges award prizes for the best quality. They grow the
kind of tobacco used for cigars and chewing tobacco. George Nettum, general manager of the northern Wisconsin cooperative tobacco pool, dreamed up the contest. He's the undisputed local expert on what makes a good tobacco leaf.

Nettum:  This tobacco's soft, pliable, it's elastic. It's kind of like lingerie. See that? See the way it stretches? Now, there's what they call little stitches in tobacco. It's the veins. but when you stretch it out and stretch it on a cigar, it makes the cigar hold its shape and it'll keep the cigar tight so that it doesn't sag or fall down or break or anything like that. but that's a beautiful leaf.

Judges spend the morning pouring over the samples and, after lunch, more contests get underway. There's the stripping contest where children, adults, and seniors race to strip leaves of tobacco off stalks hanging from wooden slats. And there's
the spitting contest.

Don Ackerman has won the spitting contest seven of the past eight years.

Ackerman: It's quantity control, not to spit a lot of volume. Keep it simple. Smaller goes farther.

This year, he won with a 20- foot- 9 1/2 inch shot that arched off the spitting platform onto the cement floor.

Ackerman: I've chewed for the last 20 years but I've chewed Copenhagen and that's a whole different ballgame than this loose-leaf chew of Red Man.  You get a lot more juice with Red Man. Copenhagen, I can chew that and pretty much keep swallowing that all day long; probably rot my guts out. But, oh well.

The spitting contest has always been part of the Expo but Westby native Brian Rude, a Wisconsin state senator, says the festival has changed since he was a kid.

Rude: There were free cigars at the door and everybody smoked a cigar. You would walk in and there would be this cloud of blue smoke.  When we were kids, we always knew there were free samples being handed out , so kids would try to come in and see if they could snitch a cigar, and for whatever reason I don't know.

Dairy, corn, oats, and alfalfa have long been the agricultural mainstays in the area. Very few farmers have raised tobacco exclusively. Alvin Christianson has raised tobacco for more than 50 years and he says it was always an important supplement.

Christianson: We used to raise a lot of it here and it paid for a lot of farms. I know with my family, we raised some and it would give them education money, and for me it'd take care of my taxes. A little bit once in awhile, (I'd) buy a piece of machinery. but you can't do that anymore.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture decides how much tobacco farmers can grow. The government is cutting allotments this year because processors are importing more of their tobacco from overseas farmers who don't pay as much for labor. Health concerns are also pushing down the demand for tobacco products; a fact that farmers like Christianson are slowly accepting.

Christianson: I think if you, well I don't know, use common sense, there's common sense in everything. You can overdo it or you don't. I chewed and I smoked all my life, but I had a heart attack and , after that, I had to listen to the medical profession and probably quit the smoking.
Few people at the Expo deny the health risks of tobacco. They say the event is designed to celebrate the economic benefits of growing tobacco rather than to promote tobacco products. The areas state representative, DuWayne Johnsrud,
entered both the spitting and stripping contests. In the Assembly, he's the senior member of the health committee.
Johnsrud: We don't hammer on alcohol as hard as we do on tobacco, and yet that causes us greater health problems, greater catastrophic problems with government and how we fund people's health problems. So you pick your poison and what you want to do and live with it. but it's tough to justify. There's no doubt about it.
Organizers say this years Expo will probably be the last;  not because they're bowing to public pressure over health concerns, but because there may not be enough farmers growing tobacco in the region to fill out next years contest.