The first thing a newcomer notices is the smell.
Inside this warehouse on the northern edge of Edgerton, the scent of unprocessed tobacco fills the air. It’s a thick but satisfying aroma, one much purer than that of cigarettes.
It’s a smell a newcomer would grow accustomed to if he spent his entire life harvesting tobacco as Tim Krausse has.
Krausse, 52, is one of a handful of farmers in the Edgerton area still harvesting tobacco. It’s a labor-intensive crop with a flat financial outlook, but he perseveres.
“You got to like it to do it. I enjoy it,” Krausse said. “I probably wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. It’s got to be in your blood.”
Unlike most crops that are planted, grown and harvested, tobacco production lasts long after the plant leaves the soil. The time it spends in the ground is actually relatively brief—planted in June and harvested in late August or early September, Krausse said.
Then the stalks are hung inside a shed to cure, or dry, and remain there through the fall.
Thursday evening’s sudden freeze notwithstanding, this soggy week of mild weather is exactly what Krausse needs this time of year. Called “case weather,” the warm and damp conditions keep the air moist enough for workers to take down cured tobacco stalks and later strip them of their leaves.
The Krausses’ stripping strategy is different from most. Many tobacco farmers hang their cured stalks on a lath and strip the leaves at their own pace, said Tim’s son Kaleb Krausse.
But to get anything accomplished that way, the Krausses would need plenty of labor because using a lath is slow work. It would be expensive to hire enough people, and people interested in such arduous work are hard to find anyway, Kaleb said.
So instead, the Krausses use a conveyor and a small group of hired help to strip stalks. The stalks are fastened to one end of the overhead chain, and the leaves are then pulled off and stuffed into a temporary storage bin.
It’s best to grab the oily, leathery leaves where they meet the stalk and pull up. They come off easiest that way but still leave fingers blackened from their oil.
Edgerton was once a hub of tobacco production in Wisconsin. Drivers heading north on Highway 51 will see a Wisconsin Historical Marker at the southern edge of the city, touting the region as the state’s first home of commercial tobacco.
Edgerton still holds its annual Tobacco Heritage Days festival each July. But most of its cream brick warehouses have vanished, and the ones that remain are vacant or have been converted into other uses.
Bob Bartz, state manager for Viroqua Leaf Tobacco, said tobacco production has evaporated in his 45 years in the industry. He estimated Wisconsin produced only 1.2 million pounds of tobacco this past year.
His guess is probably accurate. Wisconsin produced 1.8 million pounds in 2012, the most recent year of available data. Aside from a few fleeting increases, production has steadily dwindled over the last several decades, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
As recently as 1982, Wisconsin harvested more than 20 million pounds of tobacco annually. Even that is a far cry from a peak of 62.4 million pounds in 1918.
Kaleb mostly enjoys working outdoors during tobacco harvest season, but he acknowledges the historical connection to Edgerton’s legacy crop.
“That’s fun knowing that you still do something that they did how many years ago, and that’s what your town was built around,” Kaleb said. “It’s kind of nice doing that.”
The Krausses said tobacco prices have remained flat for years. At least corn and soybeans will have their occasional windfall years, but that doesn’t happen with tobacco, they said.
The Krausses dabble in many types of farming. They do corn, soybeans, beef, pork, custom planting and combining, and also haul grain through their trucking business.
Tobacco’s busy winter fits neatly into the corn and soybean offseason, and the crop is entwined with their life story, so they stick with the work, Tim said.
Bartz said demand has fallen, and many former tobacco farmers simply lost interest. The ones who continue to produce the crop are creatures of habit.
“They’ve done it year in and year out. It’s hard to give it up. Nobody out here is going to make $1 million raising tobacco,” Bartz said. “The guys who are doing it, they aren’t doing it to lose money or not make money. It’s just what they’re used to doing. It’s been more and more of a challenge every year.”
The final step for the Krausses is to bundle the stripped leaves before taking them to a processor in Stoughton.
They do that task differently, too. Instead of using a machine that mechanically compresses the leaves, they use an air pressure system. That’s the Southern method, Kaleb said.
Tim estimated they would get 25 bundles finished by the end of the day. But roughly six to seven acres’ worth of cured tobacco stalks wait inside a storage shed, he said.
As the remaining stalks move in and out of the warehouse, their enveloping smell will hang in the air for at least another month.