Monday, September 17, 2007

Cave City/Park City, KY Tobacco Production

While not necessarily used in CIGAR production, I recieved and unexpected and yet very insightful look into American Tobacco growth and processing on my recent vacation trip.
Well as many of my loyal readers know I just returned from a trip to the Bourbon Festival in KY. At the beginning of the week Carrie and I decided to go to Mammoth Cave for two days in Cave City (Barren County) in the southwestern part of the state. On Thursday morning while Carrie was showering I was looking out my hotel's back window when something peaked my interest, so I grabbed the digital camera and walked over to check it out:
When I came home last night I did a little research, and it seems Cave City is in the "Black Patch" region of KY, one of the largest tobacco producing areas in the country, and for that matter, the world. Kentucky farmers grow three types of tobacco: burley, dark fire-cured, and dark air-cured. Burley tobacco (which is what I saw), comprising more than 90% of total production, is grown in 119 of Kentucky's 120 counties and is used primarily in cigarettes. Dark fire-cured and dark air-cured production is concentrated in 33 western Kentucky counties and is used primarily in smokeless tobacco products such as snuff, chewing and pipe tobacco. The value of tobacco production generally exceeds $1 million annually for more than 100 Kentucky counties. Kentucky is the nation's largest producer of burley tobacco and dark fire- and air-cured tobaccos. Only North Carolina surpasses Kentucky in tobacco production.

After figuring out what this barn was, I began noticing them everywhere we went those two days.

Then in Park City, and adjoining town, we found a half harvested field, just for good measure:In the U.S., burley tobacco plants are started from pelletized seeds placed in polystyrene trays floated on a bed of fertilized water in March or April. Transplanting begins in May and progresses through June with a small percentage set in July.

Plants are topped by removing the developing flower head at approximately 60 days from transplanting and treated to prevent the growth of side shoots called suckers. Topping allows energy that would have produced a bloom to promote leaf expansion.

At approximately four weeks after topping the tobacco is stalk cut using a knife that is shaped like a tomahawk. Each plant is speared, spiked or spudded (the terminology depending on the geographic location) onto a stick topped by a metal spear, spike or spud that fits over the stick. Each stick will contain five or six stalks. Sticks of green cut tobacco are most often allowed to field wilt for three or four days prior to hanging in a barn.

Tobacco is allowed to air cure for eight or more weeks turning from the normal pale green to yellow and then to brown. Burley that cures too quickly will retain some of the yellow pigments as well as chemicals that normally break down with a slower cure. The quality achieved by U.S. burley producers is primarily due to natural curing conditions.

Once fully cured burley is taken down, sticks are removed and leaves are stripped from the plant into grades by stalk position. Leaves are baled by grade and taken to an auction warehouse or to a receiving station run by a tobacco manufacturer or leaf dealer.

We saw the "spearing" and "field wilting" as described above, as well, but were shooed off the field by some rather adamant young men in a large beat up pickup truck before being able to get photos. The photo below accurately depicts the field curing as we saw.

I thought this was an incredible piece of fortunate luck as a cigar enthusiast to catch this stuff in action. It may be tobacco being raised for use in cigarettes, but as someone who most likely will never make it to a cigar plantation, to see some of the processes in action was quite a surprise find!


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