Despite increased tobacco controls, farmers plow on

Monday, October 1, 2001

KEARNEY, Mo. -- Visitors will not find many agricultural tools in David Pichel's tobacco barn.

For the late summer tobacco harvest, all field hands need are tomahawks, spikes and wooden sticks. Unless of course you count the water cooler as a tool, something Pichel says is almost as important in the heat.

"This is a high-dollar cash crop and everything is done manually," said Pichel, speaking inside his Clinton County tobacco barn. "It's collected by hand and hoed just like a big garden."

Little has changed about cultivating tobacco over the last 50 years in Missouri. Herbicides have made the roughly 90-day growing season easier to keep insects off crops, and a binding machine has cut down on post-harvest labor.

But there are fewer and fewer tobacco farmers in Clinton county. And those here have cutback on production because of government quotas initiated by the tobacco settlement agreement.

A reliable crop

Tobacco has always been a reliable crop in Missouri because of its ability to withstand high heat and dry summers.

"It was always a good cash crop," said Billy Ray Moore, whose family has grown tobacco for more than a half-century. "As long as you could get your labor, there were no problems."

Moore said he learned the trade from his father, William, who annually grew a few acres of tobacco until he retired in 1973. Through the years, his sons raised as much as 20 acres of tobacco and now have five acres around the county.

This is the 50th year the family's barn on Moore Road has held tobacco from its rafters.

"He didn't raise as much as I did because he didn't have the herbicides and all that back then," Moore said. "My brother and I used to have to go out and hoe it out every morning and sometimes into the evening. It was hard work."

Around August, leaves on the burley tobacco ripen to a bright yellow and the stalks are ready for harvest. For harvest, Pichel typically employs nine workers, who cut the individual stalks and spear them onto wooden sticks. They're then hauled by wagons to the tobacco barn, hung on poles from the rafters and left to cure for about two months.

Doorways remain open "to allow a constant flow of air through the barn," an integral part of the curing process, Pichel said. Farmers today have direct contracts with tobacco companies, who ship the product from receiving barns like the one in Weston.

Supplements income

Pichel, who farms across the road from Moore, has grown tobacco for 25 years. Like Moore, Pichel has used tobacco to supplement family income.

Raised on a produce farm in Pennsylvania, Pichel said his family grew tomatoes for the Campbell's soup company. He had some familiarity with tobacco because Amish farmers grew it in Pennsylvania.

"Tobacco just happened to be on the farm when we bought it," said Pichel, who earned his living as an over-the-road driver. "When I first came here, almost every farm had some tobacco grown on it. Most of the old-timers passed away and nobody started growing tobacco. Back at that time it was part of the culture. And if you knew you could grow tobacco, you could pay for your farm."

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