In much of Kentucky, tobacco farming has waned since its economic dominance a decade ago. But in Western Kentucky, where dark-fired tobacco is grown, a remnant of that culture thrives.
In a new documentary, Farming in the Black Patch, filmmaker Michael Breeding delved into why the farmers of Calloway County have stayed loyal to such a difficult crop, which has been a staple for more than 150 years.
The film was funded by donations, including a sponsorship from Murray State University, where the documentary premiered in November.
Breeding, who grew up on a burley tobacco and dairy farm in Valley Hill, in Washington County, had never been around dark-fired tobacco.
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The Black Patch — where the leaf is smoked but the tobacco is chewed — is known for its "smoking barns." Unlike Central and Eastern Kentucky, where burley tobacco is grown for cigarettes, Western Kentucky's deep green crop is destined for "snuff" or smokeless chewing tobacco, a segment of the market that is growing. Burley is cured by summer heat, but dark-fired tobacco is "smoked" in closed barns with wood-chip fires.
"There really is a difference between the burley guys and the dark-fired guys," Breeding said in an interview.
The growers in his film consider their tobacco "an art form," he pointed out.
Dark-fired tobacco requires more work, more expense, more monitoring, he said. But the work ethic, the resourceful nature and the independent spirit should feel very familiar to farmers everywhere, he said.
The film, which debuts Monday on Kentucky Education Television, follows farmers, including Billy Dale Smith of Murray, through the 2009 crop year, which began with a devastating January ice storm. That year, Smith, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer, grew 28 acres of dark-fired tobacco, 1,200 acres of soybeans, 500 acres of corn and 110 acres of wheat.
"I guess it's all I've ever done. ... It's about the only thing I've ever wanted to do," Smith told the Herald-Leader. "It's a way of life down here. It's been passed down from generation to generation."
That is part of what drew his sister, Bobbie Bryant, to write about dark-fired tobacco farming.
"The Black Patch is my roots," said Bryant, who was associate producer of the film. "For Western Kentucky, and to some degree the burley regions, tobacco farming was how everybody made a living up until about 20 to 30 years ago. That has drastically changed. ... What we experience as children is fading away. Just trying to capture this, for me, was the inspiration for the film."
There is no question farming in Kentucky has shifted since the 2004 buyout of the federal price support "quota" program, which guaranteed growers a specific price for a limited amount of tobacco.
Will Snell, a tobacco expert at the University of Kentucky, said that unlike burley, which has seen a downward trend in consumption for cigarettes, dark-fired for smokeless products has been booming.
"Typically, before 2000, dark tobacco comprised about 4 to 8 percent of the tobacco produced in the state. But in recent years, it's been about a third of the volume," Snell said.
Last year's crop was worth about $100 million, he said. In fact, the market for this kind of tobacco has been growing about 4 percent to 6 percent a year for the past 25 years, he said.
Where burley could gross $5,000 an acre, dark-fired could gross $10,000 an acre, Snell said.
It's a far cry from the early days of dark-fired production, particularly the infamous Black Patch war of the 1900s, when Western Kentucky farmers banded together to form a co-op and hold out against American Tobacco Co., known as the Trust, for decent prices.
"Nobody on God's earth ever raised tobacco for the sheer fun of it," said William T. Turner, a Christian County historian. "And when it dawned on the farmers of the Black Patch that it was costing them the same amount to produce it as it was to sell it, then they began to gather in droves at the railroad crossroads of Guthrie, Kentucky. ... There they formed the Planters Protective Association."
The goal was to hold the tobacco off the market to drive up the price, Turner said. The Trust responded by offering higher prices to farmers who wouldn't "pool" their tobacco. "Night riders" burned barns, crops and houses of non-pool farmers.
Nowadays, the power balance has shifted back again. Growers usually sell directly to manufacturers, under contract.
Tobacco's roots in the community are deep but farmers will stick with it only as long as it makes financial sense.
Billy Dale Smith has tried alternatives such as peppers and has had more than a passing interest in hemp.
"I'm willing to try anything," Smith said. "So far I haven't found anything I can grow legally that can make as much as tobacco. That's why I still do it."
All farmers must cope with fluctuations in weather, world market prices and the supply of reliable, legal labor. There aren't that many "new" farmers, but Breeding said he was surprised to find some for his film.
"I think there are kids coming up who want to farm, and they want to raise dark-fired tobacco," Breeding said, in part because it can be so lucrative.
'Farming in the Black Patch'
9 p.m. Feb. 11 on KET. Repeats numerous times including at 2 p.m. Feb. 13 on KET KY and 4 p.m. Feb. 14 on KET