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In Wisconsin, Norwegians grow tobacco.

July 26, 2017

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Tobacco production is a long, labor intensive process. From seeding, planting, tending, harvesting, hanging, curing (Tobacco is air cured in distinct long sheds), stripping and finally, to storage and transport, it demands constant attention. In the mid/ late 1800's, Tobacco became the specialty of Norwegians in southern and southwestern Wisconsin. The old saying was, "Wherever there's Norwegians, you'll find tobacco." It was a family operation that brought a wide net of relatives and neighbors together to help out during harvest time. Matthew Cowden, who grew up in Viroqua, recalls the harvests of a recent era," We used to raise about 4 acres on our farm. It helped my brothers and sister pay for college every year. We would do ours and then help our uncles/grandparents/cousins do theirs. We did the farm circuit every year". For most farmers, It was an additional crop - an extra 4 - 10 acres that provided a surprising amount of money for farm improvement, purchases, homes, tractors and college educations. During the boom years, which peaked just after World War I, tobacco money poured into local economies and Edgerton became Wisconsin's tobacco capitol. A regional split in 1936 created two growing districts separated by the Wisconsin River - Edgerton and Stoughton dominated the southern region and Viroqua became the center of the northern region. In the past 150 years Wisconsin Tobacco has evolved with the marketplace. Binder leaf production dominated the early 20th century (Binder Leaf is a layer inside a cigar that lies between the wrapper leaf and the majority filler) followed by wrapper leaf and chew. In the second half of the century, chew became the dominant variety. Once the second highest payout per acre in the nation with over 50,000,000 pounds produced annually, tobacco production in Wisconsin has almost disappeared. Today, a small number of farms in southeast Dane and adjacent Rock County still produce tobacco. In the early 2000's farms in Vernon County began converting former tobacco fields into vineyards and many of the great tobacco storage buildings across the region have been converted into restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Driftless Books and Music, a popular bookstore and concert stage in Viroqua, is shown below.