Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century
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Once iconic American symbols, tobacco farms are gradually disappearing. It is difficult for many people to lament the loss of a crop that has come to symbolize addiction, disease, and corporate deception; yet, in Kentucky, the plant has played an important role in economic development and prosperity. Burley tobacco—a light, air-cured variety used in cigarette production—has long been the Commonwealth’s largest cash crop and an important aspect of regional identity, along with bourbon, bluegrass music, and Thoroughbred horses.
In Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, Ann K. Ferrell investigates the rapidly transforming process of raising and selling tobacco by chronicling her conversations with the farmers who know the crop best. She demonstrates that although the 2004 “buyout” ending the federal tobacco program is commonly perceived to be the most significant change that growers have had to negotiate, it is, in reality, only one new factor among many. Burley reveals the tangible and intangible challenges tobacco farmers face today, from the logistics of cultivation to the growing stigma against the crop.
Ferrell uses ethnography, archival research, and rhetorical analysis to tell the complex story of burley tobacco production in twenty-first-century Kentucky. Not only does she give a voice to the farmers who persevere in this embattled industry, but she also sheds light on their futures, contesting the widely held assumption that they can easily replace the crop by diversifying their opera-tions with alternative crops. As tobacco fades from both the physical and economic landscapes, this nuanced volume documents and explores the culture and practices of burley production today.
Ann K. Ferrell is assistant professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University.
“This book’s description of the shift to viewing tobacco as a ‘heritage’ crop in Kentucky and what that means is an excellent contribution to the literature.”—Ann Kingsolver, author of Tobacco Town Futures: Global Encounters in Rural Kentucky
“Burley is a fascinating account of farmers and traditions surrounding a crop with a unique and long history in America, a crop that has seemingly gone from royalty to ruin in the space of the last fifty years. Ferrell does a terrific job probing the angst of contemporary producers, and along the way documents a culture that is simultaneously dynamic and conservative, changing and yet traditional.”—Sandy Rikoon, Curators Distinguished Professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri
"In Burley, Ann Ferrell combines historical and ethnographic procedures to create a compelling account of agricultural processes, changes, and policies. She exemplifies contemporary folkloristic practice and employs the techniques of oral history while contributing richly to our understanding of rural culture and the key issues of tradition, memory, and heritage."--Henry Glassie, College Professor Emeritus of Folklore, Indiana University
"Burley traces the history of burley tobacco from the colonial period to the present. Using her extensive interviews with farmers, Ann Ferrell carries the reader through the contemporary cycle of planting and harvest, a time 'in which King Burley no longer reigns and the future is uncertain.' This fine book captures both the history and the heart of Kentucky and its tobacco world."--William Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues