Tobacco In Amish Country

| By Tom Lowry | From Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

On rainy days in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, when the fields are too wet to work, the Amish farmers climb into horse-drawn buggies and make their way to the auction barn in the hamlet of New Holland. Farmers might bid on a horse or two, or barter for a season's load of hay, but the auction is more of an excuse to socialize. Talk among the bearded men gathered in clutches outside the whitewashed stables inevitably turns to tobacco.

For generations, tobacco has been the lifeblood--or "mortgage lifter" as some have dubbed it--for the closely knit, devoutly religious Amish community of 19,000 in Lancaster County. They're a people struggling to carry on simple and sheltered lives, refusing to use amenities like electricity and cars in a world that grows more modern by the day.

As they watch swaths of Lancaster County's lush rolling farmland being turned into housing developments and outlet shopping malls, many of the county's Amish are questioning whether tobacco is worth the trouble.

Just as the Amish's nineteenth century lifestyles have come under siege, the local tobacco industry has had to weather great market changes since the days when every small central Pennsylvania town seemed to have its own cigar factory.

Pennsylvania tobacco was a top filler of choice until the 1970s for many of the country's premier cigar companies--the Amish serving as the primary growers. Representatives from American Cigar, Swisher and Bayuk Cigar would make pilgrimages to Lancaster County to scour the Amish farms for the highest quality leaf.

With just a few local cigar operations remaining, most of the county's tobacco is now sold for cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Tobacco acreage in Lancaster County has plummeted to fewer than 9,000 acres from a high of 35,000 in the late 1950s. Many Amish now concentrate on dairy farming instead.

The county itself has undergone great changes. Since 1970, total farmland has shrunk by 16,000 acres to 311,000 acres. During the same period, the county's population has surged by 37 percent, to 440,000.

Despite less acreage, tobacco remains Lancaster County's largest cash crop--worth about $22 million a year. More than 1,000 Amish and Mennonite farmers still do the bulk of its farming. But growing numbers of Amish are torn between choosing new and easier ways to make a living and sticking with the tobacco traditions of the past. Chris Stoltzfus, 49, is among them.

Stoltzfus, whose ancestors have worked the land in Lancaster County for more than 70 years, heads to the New Holland auction to listen to what the other Amish are saying about tobacco. By standing among the Amish farmers talking in thick Pennsylvania Dutch accents, many smoking or chewing tobacco, Stoltzfus gets a forecast for the season: what type of tobacco will be in greatest demand, the price per pound brokers will offer and how many acres his fellow farmers intend to plant.

Two winters ago, Stoltzfus decided to cut his tobacco acreage in half for the 1996 growing season, to five acres. In addition, he farms about 20 acres of sweet corn. "It's just too much work, tobacco. You can't get the labor," says Stoltzfus, puffing away on a Captain Black cigar. "Too much work for the dollar return."

One big advantage the Amish have had through the years over non-Amish farmers--or "English" farmers as the Amish call them--was that they could cut costs by using their families to work the fields. But more Amish children are turning their backs on farming. The eldest three of Stoltzfus' nine children have gone into business building and selling backyard gazebos. This reflects a larger trend in the Amish community in which more of its members are starting up micro-enterprises, from handcrafts to concrete masonry. Dozens of these businesses have annual revenues of more than $500,000 a year.

"Tobacco farming among the Amish is clearly declining. You see mostly the conservative Amish raising it, clinging to traditions," says Donald B. Kraybill, provost of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and author of six books on the Amish. Kraybill believes the more progressive Amish have greater religious concerns about tobacco farming because of the health issues with smoking. "The more the Amish move into the world," says Kraybill, "the less likely they will be to raise tobacco."

But a cynical Stoltzfus believes when the Amish get "lazy, that's when they take it as a religious belief." Still, without the proper help, Stoltzfus says he's considering giving up farming altogether to help his wife, Katie, with her business of making and selling quilts. The quilts and other Amish-made products, from preserves to doghouses, are popular among the four million to five million tourists who come to Lancaster every year to catch a glimpse of these throwbacks to another time, the so-called Plain People.

The Amish journey to Lancaster County can be traced to seventeenth century Europe and a splinter Anabaptist movement (the Anabaptists rejected the Roman Catholic practice of baptism at birth). The founder of the Amish movement was Swiss-born Jakob Ammann, who broke away from the Anabaptist movement in 1693. He believed the Anabaptists, who over time became known as the Mennonites, had begun to show weak discipline and a waning spirituality. It is Ammann who stressed the humble and simple living that characterizes the Amish today. He encouraged untrimmed beards, plain clothing and use of hook and eye fasteners instead of buttons.

The Amish followed the Mennonites to the New World in the early 1700s to escape Europe's growing religious intolerance. Both groups settled near Philadelphia in a colony governed by Quaker William Penn. In the mid-1700s, the first Amish settled in Lancaster County and neighboring Berks County, where the communities remained small until the 1900s. In this century, the Amish population in Pennsylvania has doubled about every 20 years, with families averaging seven to 10 children. Lancaster County, where just 500 Amish lived in 1900, is now home to the second largest Amish community in the United States. Holmes County, Ohio, has the largest. The Amish population nationwide, with settlements from Kentucky to Wisconsin, numbers about 150,000.

Lancaster County's Amish community was introduced to the world in the 1985 movie Witness, starring Harrison Ford as a Philadelphia police detective hiding out among the Amish. The filming of the movie caused quite a stir among the camera-shy Amish and particularly with church leaders who run the communities.

The Amish have a myriad of church districts and sects as do their cousins, the Mennonites. But most Mennonites have adapted to mainstream life, except for some of the Old Order Mennonite sects. The "horse-and-buggy Mennonites" practice the same strict disciplines as the Amish.

Both the early Mennonite and Amish settlers in Lancaster County quickly took to tobacco farming, encouraged by the county's heavy soil and high humidity during the growing season. In 1839, the first year that a census was available on tobacco in Pennsylvania, records show that Lancaster County produced 48,860 pounds, establishing a legacy that stands today as the state's leading tobacco producing county. The 1995 crop was approximately 17 million pounds.

Lancaster maintains a rich history in tobacco and cigars. The term "stogie" originated in Lancaster, home of the legendary Conestoga wagon that carried families West in the 1800s. The wagon masters would often smoke long cigars using coarser leaves that gave off a distinctly strong aroma. The cigars became known as "stogies."

Much of the county's tobacco history is either documented or told through nostalgic yarns by the locals at Demuth's in downtown Lancaster, the county seat. Demuth's, founded in 1770, is the oldest continuously operating smoke shop in the United States (see Cigar Aficionado, Autumn 1995). Several years ago, ancestors of founder Christopher Demuth decided to operate the shop as a nonprofit foundation to preserve it as a historic jewel for tobacco buffs.

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.

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.

More in Tobacco

See all
Hail Destroys Acres Of Fuente Fuente OpusX Wrapper Leaf

Hail Destroys Acres Of Fuente Fuente OpusX Wrapper Leaf

An intense and long-lived hailstorm destroyed several acres of cigar tobacco at Chateau de la Fuente …

May 11, 2022
The Mystique of Medio Tempo

The Mystique of Medio Tempo

The newest buzzword in the cigar-blending world is medio tiempo: a high-primed leaf that packs a big …

Nov 16, 2021
Tobacco Seeds Discovered Among Stone Age Ruins

Tobacco Seeds Discovered Among Stone Age Ruins

The use of tobacco by humans goes back much farther in history than previously thought.

Oct 12, 2021
Crop Report: Nicaragua’s Tobacco Season Extends into June

Crop Report: Nicaragua’s Tobacco Season Extends into June

The season is extending an extra month, to mid-June.

May 11, 2021
Black Gold

Black Gold

The San Andrés Valley on Mexico’s Gulf Coast produces some of the most sought-after tobaccos in the …

May 12, 2020
Shade in the Dusk

Shade in the Dusk

The once-dominant wrapper leaf grown under cloth in the Connecticut River Valley now needs protection …

Oct 25, 2019