Folklore professor speaks on KY tobacco history

Sally Wegert

Historically a pillar of Kentucky’s agricultural economy, tobacco has remained one of the largest cash crops produced by the state for over a century.

Recognizing the plant’s cultural significance, Dr. Ann Ferrell, WKU assistant professor of folk studies, spent nearly a decade researching the heritage surrounding tobacco growing in Kentucky before publishing “Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century” in 2013.

Ferrell said she hoped the book would help explain a perspective which “from the outside, looks evil.”

“It’s an issue that’s presented as very simple, but when expanded is actually very complex,” Ferrell said.

After the federal tobacco price support program ended in 2004, tobacco as an industry has quickly shrunk in Kentucky. According to the United States Department of Agriculture 2012 Census, the number of tobacco farms in the state reduced by nearly 50 percent from 2007-2012. The federal buyout, when coupled with a growing stigma surrounding tobacco and a continual rise in health concerns associated with smoking, resulted in many local farmers losing their livelihood.

After years of folklore fieldwork and personal relationships built with Kentucky farmers, it is Ferrell’s opinion that a solution to their lifestyle crises is not as simple as a decision to grow something else — that burley tobacco holds a place of permanence in local farmers’ lives.

Ferrell will be speaking in Glasgow at 3:30 p.m., Sept. 7, in the WKU Glasgow Regional Library. She will be giving a lecture as a part of the “Kentucky Live” series sponsored by WKU libraries, which highlights cultural issues relevant to the state.

Following “Burley”s recent release in paperback form, Ferrell will be discussing highlights from her book and delving farther into her interest in the topic.

“We are very excited for Dr. Ferrell’s contribution to the lecture series,” said Audrey Robinson-Nkongola, assistant professor at Glasgow Regional Library and coordinator of the library’s events.

Robinson-Nkongola said her personal interest in the subject matter of Ferrell’s research stems from her own relocation to Kentucky.

“I am from Indiana, so all I knew was soybeans and corn,” Robinson-Nkongola said. “When I came here, I saw the tobacco fields but I didn’t know their true significance. Her book really details the history and the struggle and the worth of the tobacco industry in Kentucky.”

Ferrell is hopeful her lecture will encourage listeners to further explore burley tobacco’s continued significance to a changing Kentucky landscape.

“I’m always excited to share what it means to be a folklorist,” Ferrell said. “My goal is to get students to think about the complexity of the situation and question the narrative they’ve been presented with.”

Reporter Sally Jean Wegert can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].