Roots Run Deep

In Kentucky, tobacco’s roots run deep. Agriculture is the backbone of rural Kentucky industry; it keeps food on the table for millions of Kentucky families. The crop brought four million dollars into the state in 2017, making Kentucky the number one grower of burley tobacco in the nation.

Thousands of people work through the season, and the off season too, to keep the wheels turning on Kentucky tobacco. Farmers, buyers, seed manufactures, distributors, workers, and many others spend the winter months hard at work getting tobacco to the market. After the tobacco is grown and harvested, it must be air cured or fire cured in massive barns for a number of months.

The men and women who work in the tobacco industry tend to be seasoned, coming from long lines of tobacco farmers. They can remember the good years and the bad years, even decades in the past. "We had hail in the late 90's" said Billy Joe Kingston. "No one got out easy those times.” Kingston, 84, has grown tobacco for his entire life, it’s all he knows.

Ty Young, who facilitates tobacco buying, inspects tobacco hanging in a barn in Maysville, Kentucky. Young is the 3rd generation in his family to work in the tobacco industry, and the tradition carries on; his son joins him every morning to work in their Hopkinsville, Kentucky warehouse.

Tommy Dougal shows off the seeds that his company, Workman Tobacco Seed, manufactures. Workman Tobacco Seed is one of the only seed companies in the state, producing a number of different varieties of tobacco seed, from burley to fire-cured. "Takes a lot more work than I'd like to admit" said Terry Workman, the owner.

Ty Young and Gene Roberts inspect tobacco leaves at a barn in Murray, Ky. "We look for all kinda things" said Roberts. "We had a bad season for pests, that's our main concern."

Billy Joe Kingston, 84, has grown tobacco all his life. He remembers every year of it too, recalling the yeilds of seasons decades ago. "We had hail in the late 90's" said Kingston. "No one got out easy those times."

Migrant workers work late into the night to strip and bale tobacco leaves. Once the crop is harvested, the race is on to get it shipped out to buyers. Migrant workers often only work seasonally, where they will live in close quarters for months working from sunup until late into the night to process the tobacco. The government sets a minimum wage for the workers, $10.92, which upsets many farm owners. "They'll work for less" said Roberts, "the wage's just ridiculous."

Gene Roberts has had his hands on tobacco leaves all his life. He's learned the nuances of the almost 100 different tobacco grades, and can tell good tobacco when he sees it.

Workers on a farm in Golden Pond, Kentucky clock out at the end of their shifts, around 9pm.

Tobacco comes in from the field on these modified trailers and sit in warehouses waiting for processing. Last year the state of Kentucky harvested 48.4 million pounds of tobacco.

Antonio rests on a pile of tobacco stalks as he waits for a new truck to arrive.