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Edgerton growers try hand at cigarette tobacco

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Neil Johnson
August 1, 2013

EDGERTON—Larry Oberdeck stood in his 3-acre tobacco field west of Edgerton this week, inspecting his maturing crop.

He eyed his flowering Wisconsin-variety plants, with their tall, deep green leaves standing prone beneath dusty-pink flowers. It's the type of tobacco—loose-leaf chewing tobacco—that Oberdeck and other area growers have been raising for decades.  

Yet this year, mixed in with that crop is a totally different breed of tobacco. It's got broad, droopy leaves that feel velvety to the touch. It's squat—about half the height of Wisconsin tobacco.

It's Maryland tobacco—a variety manufacturers use in cigarettes and pipes, growers and local tobacco dealers say.

It's a different tobacco crop than anything Edgerton-area growers have ever tried, and it's the first time in the area's history that farmers have grown tobacco used for smoking.

Oberdeck first tried a half-acre of Maryland tobacco last year, and he has upgraded that to an acre this year. He still finds the new crop odd to look at.

“The plants, they just look different," he said. "It's a totally different thing."

Oberdeck is one of a dwindling group of farmers in northern Rock County who still grows tobacco.

Once the financial backbone of Edgerton, chewing tobacco was a cash crop that dominated fields, made millionaires out of local merchants in the late 1800s, and for decades helped put farm kids through college.

In the past 20 years, however, the loose-leaf chewing tobacco market has plummeted, and all that's left of the area's onetime stronghold are a few dozen farms with a tiny amount of tobacco acreage.

All of the tobacco in the area is grown on contract and bought by suppliers who then sell to manufacturers, but there has been a precipitous drop-off in the amount of Wisconsin-variety chewing tobacco suppliers will buy.

Bob Bartz, an Edgerton tobacco dealer for Viroqua Leaf, a division of Lancaster, Pa.–based tobacco supplier Lancaster Leaf, said the new Maryland variety is a boon for area farmers still trying to cling to 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."

Bartz said demand is higher in some parts of the world for pipe and cigarette tobacco than for chewing tobacco, which until last year was the only type of tobacco ever grown around Edgerton.

Local farmer Tom Sayre, who has grown tobacco for more than 50 years, said he's helping his grandsons raise about 5 acres of the new Maryland variety this year. It's the first time he's grown anything other than chewing tobacco or tobacco used in cigar wrappers.

Sayre said he's been told by suppliers and others in the tobacco industry that much of the Maryland variety being grown in the U.S. is sent to Asia, where it's being used in cigarettes.

“They claim where it's 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 said 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.

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 said the Maryland variety is not much more difficult to grow than Wisconsin-variety tobacco, although, unlike chewing tobacco, smoking tobacco has to be sorted in separate grades.

It also has to be planted a few weeks earlier. Oberdeck said he got his plants this year from a greenhouse in Michigan. He said he learned last year that unlike chewing tobacco, the Maryland variety needs to be moved into storage quickly once it's picked or the sun can burn and damage it.

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.



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