Tobacco farming, once integral to Southern and Tennessee culture, has virtually vanished

Tobacco farming — once central to the South's economy and culture — has all but vanished from the region.

The end of government support for the crop in 2005, coupled with a sharp decline in smoking and stiff global competition from China, India and Brazil, guaranteed a decline in tobacco production. But even experts have been surprised by how quickly the crop has faded from prominence.

Paul Dennison, owner of Dennison’s Roadside Market, stands in front of his baled tobacco on Jan. 22, 2024, in Hart County, Kentucky. “A lot of people don’t really have a clue what goes on on the farm or how stressful it is,” Dennison said.
Paul Dennison, owner of Dennison’s Roadside Market, stands in front of his baled tobacco on Jan. 22, 2024, in Hart County, Kentucky. “A lot of people don’t really have a clue what goes on on the farm or how stressful it is,” Dennison said.

"The magnitude of loss in farms is pretty alarming," said Will Snell, who studies tobacco production at the University of Kentucky.

The most recent data collected reveals a severe drop in tobacco production, according to the 2022 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture released in February.

The number of U.S. farms growing tobacco shrank 95% from 2002 to 2022. Meanwhile, Tennessee saw a 97% decline in tobacco farms. Only 241 Tennessee farms grew tobacco in 2022 compared to 8,206 farms in 2002.

The rise of vaping and nicotine pouches has further reduced the demand for tobacco.

As predicted by experts, the farms that continue to grow tobacco have increased the number of acres they devote to the crop.

The average Tennessee tobacco farm was 4.4 acres in 2002. In 2022, it jumped to 51.4 acres, according to the Census.

"I think we're down to a critical mass of growers," Snell said.

In Tennessee, the little tobacco farming that remains has concentrated in Middle Tennessee, said Mitchell Richmond of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

Richmond, who comes from a farming family, remembers when a few acres of lucrative tobacco was essential to a family farm in Tennessee.

"A couple of acres max of tobacco is how a lot of families would pay for the farm, pay for the Christmas groceries," he said.

Many people Richmond knows paid for their college by working for tobacco growers in the summers.

Other crops, like watermelons and hemp, have held promise as new high-value cash crops but haven't matched the onetime-prominence of tobacco.

"There's never really been a crop that has come through since that can replace that kind of income," Richmond said.

Todd A. Price is a regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at taprice@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Why tobacco farming has nearly vanished in Tennessee