WKU professor discusses new tobacco book

Tyler Prochazka

Students interested in Kentucky agriculture, folklore and history will have all of these topics converge in one lecture tonight.

Ann Ferrell, author of “Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century,” will discuss her new book as part of the Kentucky Live! series tonight at 7 p.m. The lecture is a free, swipeable event that is open to the public.

The lecture will discuss how the production of burley tobacco in Kentucky has impacted the state over the years, and how Kentucky burley farmers are reacting to changes in the industry.


Ferrell, a folk studies professor at WKU, said everything from farm technology to marketing has changed for Kentucky’s tobacco industry.

“Economically it was once the most important cash crop,” Ferrell said. “Today it is not the most important cash crop, but there are still farmers who continue to raise it.”

Ferrell said two major events in the tobacco industry have had a large impact on Kentucky’s tobacco farmers: the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) and the federal tobacco buyout.

The tobacco buyout was a program to help the industry transition to a “free market” in tobacco with the use of money from tobacco companies, Ferrell said.

The MSA was a settlement between US state attorney generals and the tobacco industry due to the health risks from tobacco.

“Kentucky made the decision to put half the funds in the (MSA) settlement in the agriculture development fund, which provides grants for farm projects that are aimed at moving away from tobacco,” Ferrell said.

Ferrell said over the years the number of tobacco farmers has shrunk from 29,000 in 2002, to just over 8000 in 2007. However, there are still large quantities of tobacco being produced.

“There is still a lot of tobacco being grown just by fewer farmers,” Ferrell said.

As tobacco became stigmatized, some Kentucky farmers left the industry for ethical reasons which is a big change from the previous view of tobacco in Kentucky, she said.

“At one time in the late 50s, tobacco was grown on over 80 percent of farms on the state,” Ferrell said. “Culturally growing tobacco was the norm. It wasn’t something strange or bad.”

Brian Coutts, one of the founders of the Kentucky Live! series, said Ferrell has been researching this topic for her book since 2005.

“She has been interested in the burley tobacco industry in Kentucky for a long time,” Coutts said.

Coutts said Ferrell did more than just interview farmers for an understanding of burley production, but also has firsthand knowledge of this type of work.

“She got out and worked on a tobacco farm and worked in the harvest,” he said. “It is a very labor intensive operation, back-breaking labor.”

The Kentucky Live! series, which is in its eleventh year, has had a handful of Bowling Green community members who have come to almost all of the lectures over the past decade, Coutts said. For this lecture, he said he is trying to target specific groups at WKU.

“We have been targeting the people in ag because it has been such a big part of Kentucky industry,” Coutts said.

Jennifer Wilson, WKU library’s marketing coordinator, said the event will likely draw a wide audience.

“We typically have a good turnout of faculty, staff and community members for the lecture series,” she said.

Even with a limited budget, Coutts said Kentucky Live! has been able to find a wide array of interesting speakers.

“We try to mix the local speakers with well-known people from the region,” Coutts said.

Immediately following the lecture, Ferrell will stay for a book signing, and one free autographed book will be given away as a door prize.

For Ferrell, it is important the community learns about the history of tobacco in Kentucky because it still plays a large part in the state’s agriculture.

“To ensure that Kentucky has a successful agriculture history, we need to make sure we pay attention to farmers of all times,” she said.