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Tobacco In Amish Country

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

(continued from page 3)

Despite "dark-to-dark" daily work schedules, the Amish farmers are never too busy to help a fellow farmer. The barn-raising scene in Witness was not just Hollywood using literary license.

Last year, a large barn housing cattle near New Holland burned to the ground. Amish from all over the county arrived the next day to help remove the charred remains and to start building another barn. The cattle farmer was back in business in 10 days. "That's just the way they are. They'll take time out from tobacco season to lend a hand," says Weaver.

After about two months of letting the tobacco cure, around Thanksgiving farmers take down the laths of tobacco, its leaves turned to a deep copper. The crop is then moved to an earthen cellar for dampening. A few days later, the laths are taken to a stripping room where the leaf is pulled from the stalk and packaged. It takes one person about a week to strip an acre of tobacco.

Stripping an entire harvest can occupy a farmer for more than a month, depending on his help. Eventually, leaves are pressed in a bale box and packaged for auction or for sale on the farm. Most Amish sell their Pennsylvania 41 to a broker from Lancaster Leaf Co., one of the few remaining tobacco brokers in the county.

Carl Berger, 84, chairman of National Cigar Co. of Frankfort, Indiana, buys Pennsylvania tobacco from Lancaster Leaf, but not nearly as much as he did decades ago. "The prices went up so high when the chewing tobacco companies came in to buy Pennsyl-vania tobacco," says Berger. "Pennsylvania still has a good, broad-leafed tobacco and the Amish are just wonderful. On most of the farms, all you need is a handshake. Their word is their bond."

Lancaster tobacco broker Geoffrey H. Ranck has made a livelihood in dealing with the Amish. Nothing would make his career in tobacco more complete than to rejuvenate thefarmers' enthusiasm for Pennsylvania tobacco by returning the local broadleaf to its earlier prominence.

Ranck is president and owner of the Domestic Tobacco Co., a company formerly known as A.K. Mann, dating back more than a century. Ranck is related to the Mann family through a marriage generations ago. He bought the company from the Mann family estate in 1989. Domestic is a broker for tens of thousands of pounds of Amish-grown tobacco and also produces the Amish brand cigar, which retails for about 70 cents a cigar.

Looking to capitalize on the growing demand for a better smoke, Ranck last year launched a new, high-quality handmade cigar--The Presidents Private Stock--using Pennsylvania tobacco for its long filler and wrapper. Domestic's Presidents Private Stock, which sells for about $3 a cigar, is manufactured in Honduras, but Ranck says its flavor and character is pure Pennsylvania. "I know once people can see and taste it, they are going to want [that tobacco] in more of their cigars," he says. Ranck has spent a good part of the last year escorting shipments of Pennsylvania tobacco to a factory in Danlí, Honduras, to oversee the skilled hand rollers turning out his hope for the future.

A world away, on the patchwork of tobacco acreage that every summer transforms the Lancaster landscape into a quilt of green, Amish farmers like Chris Stoltzfus continue to toil, loyal to tradition but intrigued increasingly by the prospect of change.

Tom Lowry covers Wall Street for USA TODAY. He is a native Pennsylvanian.

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