By Leondia Walchle
VEVAY, Ind. – Gray’s Farms has been raising tobacco since 1940. Only about half a dozen tobacco growers remain in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana (Jefferson and Switzerland Counties). This crop is about 80 percent “hand labor,” according to Mike Gray. Tobacco needs full sun and rolling, good drainage soil. This area is ideal for Burley tobacco used primarily for cigarette production. Connecticut Broadleaf used for wrapping cigars has not been as successful.
March begins the sowing of seedlings in the greenhouse where they will be mowed/trimmed a number of times to promote even growth and strengthen the stem.
Mid-May through the end of June is normally transplanting time into the fields, Gray said, using their two or four-row transplant machine while manually placing each seedling into the plant wheel (normally 8,000 plants per acre). Once the plants begin to shoot blooms, the tops will be broken off by hand to increase the size of the tobacco stem and thereby decrease their density. At that time, a growth retardant will be applied to control suckering.
Harvesting season begins about eight weeks after transplanting (1st week of August through 1st week of October)/about 21 days from flowering. Tobacco leaves are ready to harvest from the ground up. Ideal harvesting is a foggy day where the leaves can pick up the humidity and become pliable, Gray said. The entire tobacco plant will be hand cut, speared and hung on a wooden tobacco stick (5-6 stalks per stick) to let the sap down for about three days in the field and then manually loaded onto a hay wagon.
The tobacco will be manually hung up in a ventilated barn or outdoor scaffolding area for 6-8 weeks of curing where the plant will continue to dry and turn brown.
Stripping is the next manual process to sort the grade of tobacco. Once sorted, about eight sticks to the bundle will be manually loaded into the tobacco packer to mash down into 600-700 pound bales.
The tobacco buyer is looking for quality leaves (minimal holes and even coloring), Gray said. As with all farming, the yield is based on environmental conditions. This year’s crop was doing remarkably well until 9 inches of rain arrived in one day.
“Farming is in my blood, so I will continue growing tobacco as long as I can,” Gray said. “(It) will be hard to retire. Remaining growers are retiring; I would like to see the younger generation become interested.”