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Tobacco In Amish Country

Tom Lowry
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

Volunteer clerks at Demuth's spin tales about the prime of tobacco farming in Lancaster County when almost every farmer from Little Britain to Blue Ball grew the leaf. Curing sheds, most of them long ago abandoned for new uses, are still visible on many farms.

While the English farmers in Lancaster County have kept up with the times, using modern machinery and techniques for farming corn and alfalfa, they still farm tobacco in much the same way it was done in the nineteenth century. That has put the Amish on a level playing field, at least with tobacco.

The tobacco the Amish have farmed for generations is designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "Pennsylvania 41," which produces a heavy-bodied, dark-colored, gummy leaf. The tobacco is sold mostly for cigar filler and chewing tobacco. But about 20 years ago, when demand for Pennsylvania 41 began drying up because of overseas competition and higher prices, Amish farmers started growing Maryland 609 tobacco. The Maryland 609 is blended with a Southern burley tobacco for use in cigarettes. More than half the county's tobacco crop is now Maryland 609, which is sold during 10 weeks of auctions starting in December.

The auctions mark the end of a tobacco season that begins in Lancaster County in early March, when farmers start planting tobacco seedlings. The Amish use horse-drawn carts to plant the tobacco in the ground in early summer, forgoing tractors and automated planters.

By harvest time in August and September, entire Amish families can be seen in the fields, cutting the stalks with shears, one at a time, down a row of plants. The leaves are allowed to lie in the sun to soften, but not for too long because the leaves can burn. The wilted plants are then speared onto a four-foot-long lath. Amish parents and their barefooted youngsters stack the laths, which carry about five plants each, onto a horse-drawncart. They then haul the plants to the tobacco shed for curing.

This is perhaps the toughest part of all tobacco farming. The laths, weighing about 40 pounds apiece, are taken off the cart and handed to farmers and helpers, who hang them on long rails in the large shed. Working high up in the shed under a tin roof in the intense heat of late summer tests the mettle of the Amish work ethic.

Larry Weaver, an English farmer in Lancaster and head of the Pennsylvania Tobacco Growers Association, has worked around the Amish his whole life. "These guys are tough old buggers. They were taught to work hard from day one," says Weaver. "Their bodies seem to be able to stand it and some work past 70 years old. I don't know how the heck they do it."

Jonas Hoover, 56, is an Old Order Reidenbach Mennonite who, like the Amish, lives without electricity. His hands are puffed with muscles almost to the size of small baseball mitts from 40 years of farming tobacco.

Hoover is known as one of the hardest-working farmers in the county, enlisting his 11 children to help him farm 13 acres. He prides himself on outlasting workers half his age. Hoover tells the story of a young, eager hitchhiker passing through Lancaster who had seen Witness and wanted to help with the harvest. Hoover says he hired him to cut tobacco and then hang it in the sheds.

"He stayed about a week," says Hoover, a sly smile crossing his face.

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