In Nov. 26 IssueBy Kim GrahamTimes Journal Reporter
The feel of humid summer heat is gone and the smell of tobacco drifts through local barns as cured leaves are stripped from their stalks and graded to sell.
Junie Gosser, of Russell County, is a third generation farmer who has been growing tobacco on her farm since 1993.
Her dad, Larry Gosser, has owned his farm since 1963 and his father grew tobacco before him.
Tobacco has been a profitable crop in Kentucky and a way of life across generations.
The cash crop is still slowly air cured much the same as it was in the past two centuries.
"We grow ten acres," said Larry Gosser. "Raising tobacco is a lot of hard work."
Lined up alongside a wooden trailer, 4 workers use the pass the stalk system of grading to separate the tobacco into 4 grades.
More tobacco hangs overhead in the dimly lit barn as they strip cured leaves and hand the plant to the next person.
Finally, the last worker tosses the bare stem into a growing pile of leafless stalks that will be spread in pastures to decompose.
Piles of the golden leaves are then baled according to grade and labeled for sale.
The Gossers started stripping this year's crop October 16th and will take about 3 more weeks working 6 days a week to finish.
"Used to, we didn't hire any help to strip," Junie said. "All the family got together and we'd strip tobacco at night and on weekends."
The father, daughter partnership runs their farm operation with 4 hired workers who help during tobacco season.
Larry and Junie both have agriculture degrees from Eastern Kentucky University but have also relied, as many small farmers do, on off-farm jobs to support their family.
Larry retired from Adanta in August of this year, his wife Rita recently retired as a social worker and Junie works for Treviicos-Soletanche JV, general contractor for the rehabilitation project at Wolf Creek Dam.
"I have a job to support my farming hobby," said Junie.
Five years ago, the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, also known as the tobacco buyout, permanently changed Kentucky agriculture.
The program provides payments to help tobacco producers but the payments will end in 5 years.
Tobacco, once the state's leading cash crop, has declined mostly because of the 2004 repeal of the Depression-era program of federal quotas and price supports.
Now farmers can grow as much tobacco as they want or sell to cigarette companies, which exercise more control over the industry by contracting directly with farmers rather than buying at auctions.
A few auctions are still held with prices averaging about the same as contracted purchases.
"It's hard to get a contract but I have a one with Phillip Morris," said Junie Gosser. "We'll have to sell half our crop on the auction floor this year in Danville."
The Gosser's crop averaged $1.74 per pound last year and she said they are expecting about the same prices this year.
"Tobacco's been good to me," said Junie. "But if prices don't get better, I'm going to quit."
The decline in demand for tobacco and rising labor costs are changing the face of agriculture but
Junie plans to continue farming by raising beef cattle.
The Gossers sell feeder calves raised from 70 brood cows. This year, they saved back 16 heifers to expand the beef herd.
"I'll stay in the beef business or maybe try a small dairy herd," Junie said.
The future of farming, particularly the family farm, is sketchy at best.
More children are choosing other lines of work and leaving family tobacco farms.
Junie's kids, Jesse, 6 years old and Jalyn, 15 years old, may not be the next generation of farmers.
Instead of helping strip tobacco on nights and weekends, her kids choose other ways to spend their time.
"When I was growing up, Dad made me help strip tobacco," said Junie. "You didn't really have a choice."
A sophomore at Russell County High School, Jalyn has shown some interest in farming and is a member of Future Farmers of America.
However, Junie is encouraging her daughter to pursue a career other than agriculture because the future of farming looks too bleak.
In 2009, there are less than 6,000 farms growing tobacco in Kentucky, a reduction of 87 percent from the 46,850 farms that grew burley in 1997.
Junie said she and her dad had talked about cutting back on tobacco next year but he bought a new tobacco setter this year.
Even though he's tired and prices are low, it is difficult for him to get farming tobacco out of his system.
"That's the fun part, is watching the plants grow," Junie said. "I've worked on the farm since I was 6 years old. This is the only work I've ever done that I've enjoyed."