Local tobacco growers press on in dwindling market
The Oberdecks are one of a dwindling handful of families in Rock County who continue to grow tobacco.
EDGERTON Rural Edgerton resident Larry Oberdeck is in good spirits, but it’s hard to say why.
The afternoon is muggy, and rain is in the forecast. And with just over half of his tobacco crop harvested, what Oberdeck really needs is sun and dry air.
All summer, it’s been like this. Rain. Damp. Floods. The result: Part of the five acres of tobacco Oberdeck had contracted to grow for a buyer is stunted and useless.
That’s left Oberdeck wondering if he’s got enough leaf planted on high ground to meet his contract.
Time will tell, and thank heavens there was no hail this year, he says. That’s a tobacco killer.
As Oberdeck drives an aging John Deere 4020 up a glacial hill toward one of his four tobacco barns, a wagon full of arm-length tobacco leaves speared on wooden rods bounces along behind him.
Fresh from the field, the tobacco is bright green. It jostles along the bumpy path like money wagging from a fist.
Oberdeck turns and grins at a news reporter who is perched over the tractor’s rear left wheel.
The reporter yells over the engine—something about how all of this looks like hard work. Then a big question: Why, Larry, do you do this? Why not just grow corn and beans?
“Because I’m good at tobacco,” Oberdeck says. “And I think people should do what they’re good at.”
Oberdeck stops at a barn that has some of its slats pulled, like teeth from an old mouth. That’s for airflow, so the tobacco hanging inside can dry. The barn is 55 years old—the same age as Oberdeck. He’s been growing tobacco since he was 18.
Inside, the barn smells like a dusty humidor. Green tobacco hangs from rafters and from racks along the walls, a dying canopy that in the coming weeks Oberdeck will strip, bale and sell to companies that make chewing tobacco.
Oberdeck, who also grows corn and beans (and is a member of the Edgerton School Board and his church council), adjusts his sweaty Beech-Nut Tobacco cap and climbs into the rafters.
He tells his daughter, Sarah Oberdeck, to start handing him skewers of tobacco. Sarah obliges, and with dust stuck to sweat on her forehead, T-shirt and gloves, she’s surprisingly chipper.
“I’ve done this every year since I can remember,” she says, smiling.
Sarah, 25, works in admissions at UW-Madison, but she’s taken a few days off to help with the harvest. She’s one of about a dozen workers who in the last week have pulled 12-hour days chopping, spearing and hanging tobacco at Oberdeck’s farm on Highway 59 west of Edgerton.
All the workers ask for is decent pay and good Tater-Tots casserole, Oberdeck says. The latter is Kathy Oberdeck’s specialty. Kathy, Larry’s wife of 30 years, takes vacation time from her work as nurse every year at harvest time.
This year, she took less time. There’s less tobacco to harvest.
The Oberdecks are one of a dwindling handful of families in Rock County who continue to grow tobacco. Growers in southern Wisconsin produce about 1,000 acres of tobacco annually, with Rock County farms producing about 100 acres of the plant a year, said David Fischer, the UW Extension crops and soils agent for Dane County.
Around 100 years ago, southern Wisconsin produced at least 30,000 acres of tobacco yearly, local historical records say.
“It’s how people bought their farms. It’s how they built mansions. It’s how they lived,” says rural Edgerton resident Tom Sayre, who’s grown tobacco locally for more than 50 years.
For decades, tobacco farms were controlled by federal mandates that limited acreage in allotments. Under that model, a market and guaranteed prices for tobacco were set through growers’ associations and a borrowing network.
But that ended in 2004, when the federal government introduced a buyout program. Many area growers have sold their tobacco allotments, and now the plant is grown mostly on contract, with prices set buy the companies that buy it.
That means tobacco farming in southern Wisconsin now functions more like a free market, Oberdeck says.
And despite the hard work it takes to grow and harvest, a healthy tobacco crop can be lucrative, with possible net profits this year of $2,000 to $2,900 an acre, depending on yields, says Edgerton grower Scott Farrington.
Yet, companies that buy Wisconsin-grown tobacco seem to be asking for less and less each year.
Sayre, who’s in his 70s, says at one time he raised 80 acres of tobacco. He’s down to 20 acres now. He said he scaled back because it’s hard to find workers during the harvest.
Also, the company who buys his tobacco, Swedish Match Leaf Tobacco Co., has cut his contract by 10,000 pounds over the last three years, Sayre said.
Oberdeck, who once raised 14 acres of tobacco, has seen his growing contract shrink from nine acres last year to just five this year. Two of his four tobacco barns will sit empty this fall.
“It’s been up and down,” he says.
Sayre says many of the big tobacco companies have turned to foreign markets, where tobacco is grown cheaper.
“Wisconsin still grows the best tobacco in the world, though,” Sayre says. “You want to know how you know? Because you put it in your mouth.”
For many local growers, tobacco has become a sideline endeavor. But it’s an all-year affair for Oberdeck. He still grows his tobacco starts in a greenhouse even though most local growers order theirs from hothouses in Michigan.
But he no longer chews the stuff. Oberdeck said he quit chewing tobacco two years ago, after his doctor suggested he put the 28-year habit to rest.
“It took a long time for me to realize tobacco isn’t healthy for you. I still dream about chewing, though,” Oberdeck says.
At the end of the harvest day, with rain on the horizon, Oberdeck rallies what’s left of his workers, telling them he sees a few more strings of tobacco that need to be hung to dry.
Oberdeck smiles and pulls a spear-like tip called a spud from his jeans pocket. He puts it on the end of a wooden skewer and runs it through a stray tobacco stalk lying on the barn floor.
“I guess it would be easier growing corn and beans, but I can’t imagine not raising tobacco,” he says. “As long as I can, I’m going to keep doing this.”