Organic Smoke

Friday, June 16, 2006

The End of Tobacco Road

This is the first of a two part series of articles titled ‘RESPECT FOR TOBACCO – A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON THE GOLDEN LEAF’. The first article explores changes in the tobacco market that are affecting the quality of the tobacco you smoke. The next article titled ’ THE CEREMONY OF TOBACCO’ honors the Native American origins of tobacco and proposes a new and deeper understanding of this powerful medicinal plant. Color Re-prints $8.00 or free by email to Includes the artwork of Haliwa Saponi Artist Karen Lynch Harley, and “Last Generation” documentary photographer Cathyrn Jirlds

The author (Tobaccoman), Sun Butler is an eighth generation tobacco farmer and organic agriculture consultant. Mr. Butler helped design the American Spirit Certified Organic Tobacco program, the first of its kind, and advises organic tobacco farmers and others on certification issues. Recently the Butler family has begun direct marketing their organic whole leaf at Pow-wows and on the Web through Sotoya Ceremonial and Grandad’s Tobacco Company and

By Albert ‘Sun’ Butler, President Sotoya Ceremonial/Grandad’s Tobacco Company
Photographs© by Cathyrn Jirlds

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not intended to represent that smoking organic tobacco is any less dangerous to your health than smoking conventionally grown tobacco

No part of this article may be reproduced without the authors permission.

My grandfather grew the best tomatoes and watermelons in Mecklenberg County Virginia. Each year he selected the melon patch, bought tomato transplants from the same grower, and tended the vines as if they were producing the finest vintage grapes. His “special recipe” fertilizer grew lush vines which he suckered and pruned to produce huge fruit. When picking time came Grandad could judge a melon’s ripeness by the way it rang when he thumped it. We couldn’t pick a tomato until it parted from its stem with the gentlest touch. Folks said Grandad had his vegetable garden down to a science but his melons and slicing tomatoes were works of art. Grandad felt the same way about his tobacco.

You cannot buy tomatoes in a grocery store today like the ones we enjoyed during our summers on Grandad’s farm. Soon you may not be able to buy the kind of tobacco that my grandfather and his neighbors grew as well. Flue-cured tobacco produced in the “Old Belt” region of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont has always been known as the “best tobacco in the world”. Produced almost entirely on small family farms tended by tobacco farmers like my grandfather who had eight straight generations of tobacco culture and knowledge stored in his head, these men and women embody the maxim “ Pride in Bright Leaf Tobacco”.

“In 1954 there were over 500,000 farms in the US growing tobacco…. today there are less than 57,000”

It was not unusual for us to sit down to dinner at my grandmother’s table that was grown entirely on our farm and the surrounding farms of our neighbors. We traded vegetables for farm fresh eggs and wonderful Virginia cured hams. When my uncle slaughtered a cow we ate delicious grass-raised beef. Yet it was tobacco that paid the bills and took up the slack when other less profitable crops failed. In 1954 there were over 500,000 farms in the U.S.[1] growing tobacco and other crops from Florida to Wisconsin and from Virginia to Texas. Today there are less than 57,000 tobacco farms while the average crop size per farm has increased from 5 acres to over 100 acres. Market forces and the high costs of fuel, labor and automation are partly responsible. Yet as long as the government regulated Tobacco Quota Program was in effect, tobacco farming remained mostly on the same farms and by the same families who have been growing it here since the 1600s.

Last year’s vote in Congress to end the Tobacco Quota Program[2] will most likely snuff out of what remains of the Southside Virginia tobacco culture I was privileged to experience in my youth. Long days pulling ripe tobacco in the field were followed by late nights listening to the men tell stories as we watched and checked curing barns. When all of the ripe tobacco on our farm had been harvested we moved on to the next neighbor’s farm to help get their crop in the barn. Finally on “market day” we carried the tobacco to auction. Nothing quite matches the angst and anticipation of several hundred tobacco farmers waiting for the auctioneer to come work his magic and find out what price their year’s hard labor will bring. This year the tobacco auctioneer’s voice was silent and many traditional tobacco farming families will not be growing next season.

“…tobacco made it possible for small to medium sized integrated farms to produce many agricultural products for local consumption.”

Why should you care about changes in the tobacco market? As more tobacco acreage is concentrated on fewer farms the care and attention that each farmer puts into his crop is diminished. Critical factors such as time of harvest and the art of tobacco curing receive less attention as today’s bottom–line mentality produces tobacco quantity not quality. The kind of pride my grandfather took in producing good smoking tobacco has become a thing of the past. Tobacco companies rely on 496 different flavorings and additives [3] to make cheap foreign tobacco palatable. Some of these additives have been found to react chemically with nicotine to create a highly addictive form of free-base[4] nicotine.

To remain price competitive with foreign tobacco, U.S. growers must use pesticides and herbicides that leave residues[5] in the tobacco and on their land. Labor costs have forced most growers to abandon the hand harvest and grading that was the hallmark of American tobacco for centuries. Mechanized picking and artificial ripening agents have degraded the over-all quality of U.S. tobacco significantly in the last 20 years. There is great cause for concern about the quality of U.S. grown tobacco in the future.

Anti-Tobacco lobbyists like to predict that tobacco farming will soon become obsolete. That may be self fulfilling prophecy, but remember that tobacco has made it possible for many small to medium sized integrated farms to produce other agricultural products for the local market. Alternative crops like strawberries never produce the same returns as tobacco and our local farm products are soon under-cut by government water-project-subsidized mega-farms in California. Tobacco cultivation has kept small farming sustainable not just in the South, but as far north as Wisconsin and Canada, and west to Missouri and Indiana. Small farmers today find it more profitable to sell their land to grow houses than produce crops for local consumption. When 90% of our local family farmers have quit farming and spiraling transportation costs make it unprofitable to ship produce from California, Mexico and Chile, who will grow our food?

“Certified organic tobacco cannot be flavored with synthetic chemicals so we have to grow flavor in the field.

For the last ten years, a small group of tobacco growers in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee have had their farms certified organic and produced their tobacco without chemicals. The extra management required to hand-tend tobacco and other crops without pesticides has paid off with a premium price and allowed most of us to continue farming while our neighbors have sold out. Certified organic tobacco cannot be flavored with synthetic chemicals so we have to grow flavor in the field. My grandfather’s generation believed that tobacco flavor is grown in the field and made in the curing barn. We continue that tradition by hand picking only ripe tobacco and extending the yellowing time in the curing barn to ensure maximum development of flavor in our tobacco.

If you really enjoy natural tobacco flavor and care about tobacco quality there is a way you can support small farming and buy your leaf direct from the farm. Grandad’s Tobacco, a division of Sotoya Ceremonial Tobacco Company, was created for the purpose of marketing our organic leaf direct to the public. Federal tobacco regulations now allow us to sell un-processed whole leaf direct to our customers. Following our ‘Make-Your-Own Tobacco’ instructions on our website you can turn out high grade RYO/SYO and Pipe Flake tobacco. Best of all, it is legally federal excise tax free for you to make your own tobacco.

My family has grown tobacco and food crops in southern Virginia for 400 years. We and the other American small family farmers deeply appreciate your support. God bless you, and God bless the American farmer.

To find out more about Certified Organic Whole Leaf & Make-Your-Own Tobacco visit

Photographs© by Cathyrn Jirlds are now on permanent display at the Duke Homestead & Tobacco Museum in Durham NC. For more information visit For prints e-mail

[1] ‘Stuctural Changes in U.S. Tobacco Farms’; Will Snell, Dept. Agr. Econ. Univ. Kentucky'tobacco%20farm%20census%201975'
[2] ‘Tobacco Farmers Face Deadline; Ohio Democrat
[3] Additives Found in American Cigarettes; Indiana Prevention Resource Center
[4] The Science of Tobacco; Liberty Science Center
[5] Potent Pesticides Used on Tobacco; CBS News
Federal oversight on tobacco pesticides inadequate; AP


At 4:40 AM, Blogger chantix said...

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At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there an online way to buy this?

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Keith Sweezy said...

I would like information about acquiring tobacco for ceremonial use at the Swannanoa Peace Chamber. Please email me at

At 2:40 AM, Blogger faryal naaz said...

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