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Once iconic American symbols, tobacco farms are gradually disappearing. It is difficult for many people to lament the loss of a crop that has come to symbolize addiction, disease, and corporate deception; yet, in Kentucky, the plant has played an important role in economic development and prosperity. Burley tobacco—a light, air-cured variety used in cigarette production—has long been the Commonwealth’s largest cash crop and an important aspect of regional identity, along with bourbon, bluegrass music, and Thoroughbred horses. In Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century, Ann K. Ferrell investigates the rapidly transforming process of raising and selling tobacco by chronicling her conversations with the farmers who know the crop best. She demonstrates that although the 2004 “buyout” ending the federal tobacco program is commonly perceived to be the most significant change that growers have had to negotiate, it is, in reality, only one new factor among many. Burley reveals the tangible and intangible challenges tobacco farmers face today, from the logistics of cultivation to the growing stigma against the crop. Ferrell uses ethnography, archival research, and rhetorical analysis to tell the complex story of burley tobacco production in twenty-first-century Kentucky. Not only does she give a voice to the farmers who persevere in this embattled industry, but she also sheds light on their futures, contesting the widely held assumption that they can easily replace the crop by diversifying their operations with alternative crops. As tobacco fades from both the physical and economic landscapes, this nuanced volume documents and explores the culture and practices of burley production today. Awarded the 2014 Wayland D. Hand Prize by the History and Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society



Publication Date



University Press of Kentucky




Agriculture | Cultural History | Folklore | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Ann K. Ferrell became interested in the cultural meanings of tobacco production while living in Kentucky in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During this period, the $206 billion Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) was reached between the four largest American tobacco companies and forty-six state Attorneys General, and there was increasing talk about an end to the federal tobacco program. Both events would have widespread implications for Kentucky farmers, as well as for Kentucky’s economy and culture.

Ferrell began research on this project in 2005, with intensive fieldwork during the 2007 crop year—January 2007 through February 2008. During this period, Ferrell spent time on farms, observing and at times participating in tobacco production and, between 2005 and 2008, she conducted recorded interviews with farmers and members of farm families, tobacco warehousemen, university agricultural professionals, and other members of tobacco communities.

Ann K. Ferrell is Assistant Professor of Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University. She continues her research with Kentucky farmers.

Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century