Henry County, Kentucky. What holds a community together?  Or rather, what holds my community together, as I’ll have to leave you to worry about yours?  I think about it some because my friend Mary Berry Smith thinks about it a lot.  What follows comes out of our conversation, but this is her argument.

Last summer our little congregation went through a painful upheaval–a division that proved to be beyond our capacity for love, neighborliness, and appreciation of old ties.  As with all griefs, I’ve spent a lot of time mulling it over, as has Mary.  She and her husband Chuck farm full-time just a mile from us, and both have lived in Henry County all their lives.  On Sundays Mary sits in the pew that her grandmother sat in (or rather the replacement pew in the same spot).  And not long ago she said to me that she wondered if the end of the tobacco program didn’t have something to do with our troubles at church.

What she meant was this: every community must be bound together by something it shares—and for the ties to bind strongly there need to be several somethings.  Here in Henry County, when everyone used to raise tobacco, everyone had the crop’s seasons and its demands in common.  Tobacco needs a lot of tending, and requires hard work.  It must be started in beds, set out in the field, weeded, watched for disease, topped, cut, loaded, hung, taken down, stripped, bundled and hauled to market.  A fool can grow it, but he can’t grow it well, and those farmers who raise a good crop year in and year out are known and respected for that.

My state is one of the few that still has a good number of small farms, and for years here tobacco was the mortgage crop.  It made keeping those small farms possible for many families, and it was a vital part of a farmer’s mixed use of his land.  The federal tobacco program and the Burley Tobacco Growers’ Co-op acted as a brake for the small farmer on the pitilessness of the international market.  Crops that weren’t sold went into a pool, and sold for a price with a set bottom, the monies for which were serviced by the federal government but came from the sale of the crop.

All that’s gone, and Republican Party rhetoric being what it is, the end of the tobacco program is one of the achievements our senior senator Mitch McConnell is proud to cite.  Today farmers here and in the several burley-growing states are free from any buttressing power between the small growers and the supranational tobacco companies that buy their crop.  They are free to contract with the companies directly (and typically do, as otherwise there is no guarantee their crop will sell), and in one of those rhetorical equalities that is so unequal in fact, the companies are likewise free to set the price and limit the production, in a world market in which it is cheaper, of course, to grow tobacco in Brazil.

But my point is not only that farmers in my area have lost a good source of revenue.  We’ve also lost a shared experience intimately tied to this place in which we live.  Tobacco gave us something in common, Mary says; tobacco was our common language.  If she and Chuck were setting, so were others; if the weather for curing was wet, everyone waited.  If blue mold hit the county, everyone compared their losses.  And everyone had a near-disaster story from working high in the rafters of the barn, to be retold every fall.

All that has changed and it has changed recently.  Just ten years ago many people in my county still raised tobacco, or at least leased out their quota to a neighbor, who probably used the quota owner’s barn.  I still occasionally find a leaf amidst the old straw here.

But with the end of the program, most of us took the buyout and quit.  The relative few farmers who still grow tobacco grow significantly larger crops now, which is a different sort of operation.  People were growing something like two to twelve acres; now farmers often grow forty, or eighty, or even more.  This is factory farming, and there is no way a family can manage it alone.  There is too much to cut all at once, and hang all at once; it requires jobbed-in crews of migrant labor.  Raising a few acres of tobacco was good and satisfying work, Mary says.  Toiling under the pressure of eighty must be something else.

I know it’s likely you, dear reader, are no lover of the crop.  But Kentucky’s inability to grow burley will have little effect on the availability of nicotine.  The tobacco companies will continue to contract with American growers for some of their leaf, until they are under no federal pressure to do so, and then they will stop.  But they will not stop making cigars and cigarettes.  Nor is the government likely to outlaw a product which it can so profitably tax.

So it is that here in Henry County we have lost the bond that tobacco gave, and one important part of our shared history is only history.  And at times of real disagreement, such as last summer, we find we have fewer acres of common ground.

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Jason Peters' volume Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Morris Grubbs' collection of interviews Conversations with Wendell Berry.  She lives in her native Kentucky.

15 COMMENTS

  1. A fine and touching elegy, Katherine, and one that touches on many important points. “At times of real disagreement, such as last summer, we find we have fewer acres of common ground.” This is so true, and yet so often ignored by defenders of the “free” market! People who value community often pine for the communal devotion and collective support that could be found in congregations and parishes decades ago, and yet to what extent were those neighborhood communities able to hold tight and ride out their disagreements because the majority of people within them had good union jobs, had the same frame of reference when they spoke of work, had a familiarity with each other because the socio-economic structrue of their lives (the factory, the seasonal crop, the steel plant, the cotton mill) had been–properly, as it should be–protected and been allowed to put down deep roots? Not to reduce everything to an economic explanation, of course, but I would wager: to a very great extent. Take away the shared sense of livelihood, condition everyone to think that basic survival (much less middle-class flourishing) is going to depend upon “taking the buyotu” or moving on or moving up, and all of sudden religious and cultural and social disagreements are going to loom that much larger, and that much more destructively.

  2. Russell, you might say that the kinds of “communal devotion and collective support” we pine for and recall were, pardon my Marxist/Freudian, overdetermined, Living in a neighborhood where people worked for the same employer meant shared union membership. Throw in shared religious ties and the surprise might be the absence of “communal devotion and collective support.”

  3. Is it really true that we no longer have “good union jobs,” the “same frame of reference” in terms of labor, and a general socio-economic “familiarity” within communities? In most American towns and cities today these traits still exist. Many people work for the government via schools, military, social services, etc. Aren’t these good union jobs? And most share a common culture, rooted in commericial pop-culture. We all share the same sports teams, television shows, gadget culture, etc. Yes, we are more rootless than in bygone days, but Americans have always been rootless. Longing for the days when we were slightly less rootless ignores the disease itself.

    The idea of place or setting down roots seems a bit empty to me if it is filled with nothing better than wage-slavery and trashy culture. I guess what I’m trying to get at is something more than trying to prop up a dying culture by resurrecting a failed New Deal ideology.

  4. Ahh yes, Mitch McConnell, another of the Great Kleptocrat Bolsheviks who have presided over history’s biggest sell-off of the authentic Conservative Values that once served the average palooka quite well. Someone once quipped he is a man “with all the charms of a raw oyster.” I think they gave him too much credit. Quite the come down from Henry Clay but here in Connecticut, we must bear the indignities of Joe Lieberman.

    The “Leadership” is busy and their dismantling of the foundations of the Republic is continuing apace and now that debt is socialized and profit privatized while “quantitative easing” is the new name for governmental counterfeiting, we can be fairly optimistic that Washington will ditch this armed and dangerous experiment in self-mugging quite a lot sooner than anyone thinks. After the resulting horrors, it will be up to the individual to clear out the wreckage and start anew. Agriculture survived the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans, several Chinese Dynasties, the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, the British Empire, the Soviets and it will survive this latest episode of Bureaucratic Idiocy in service to Hubris known as the United States of America circa 1950-2010. There were some wonderful aspects of these last 60 years but the last 16 have scuttled the buckboard.

    Keep your hoe clean and your barn roof watertight.

  5. Actually my hoe does need some attention. But thanks gentlemen all.

    Mr Cooney: it is interesting what you say about government jobs. Around here, and I think in many rural places, those are indeed the prime jobs, and the jobs working for county government or the schools are some of the few that enable people actually to work near home. The problem with those jobs is that they are necessarily parasitic in that they feed off of taxes. They do not create wealth (I hate that term–“create sustenance” would be better, but you know what I mean). In ecological terms, then, these jobs alone are unsustainable.

    There is active culture, and passive culture–culture we make, and culture we just consume. Real culture (as opposed to “mass”) has to mean something more than entertainment, and to have any ability to connect us to each other, we have to be active in it.

    I would argue the word “culture” in the sense of a community’s culture covers all activities we do that involve us deeply in that place (garden, farm, hunt, fish) or with our neighbors (yes, even the Lion’s Club or a 50-year-olds’ garage band).

    Finally, it just isn’t true that America is a rootless nation. There has always been a rooted core, in all sorts of places, and a second group who made one big move from some other part of America and then stuck. But they don’t get any press.

  6. Roberto,

    Russell, you might say that the kinds of “communal devotion and collective support” we pine for and recall were, pardon my Marxist/Freudian, overdetermined.

    Arguably, yes. But of course, look at the context: those were local environments (and perhaps I should have specifically said that I was thinking of the middle-class, postwar neighborhoods of the 1950s and 60s here) that were able to emerge and endure and even flourish in the midst of tremendous economic growth and social change. America has always been, and always will be, a basically individualistic society; our gift for association, which Tocqueville noted, was as much an act of self-interested survival (though a “properly understood” self-interest!) as that of communitarian/republican belief. The socio-economic environments encouraged, in different ways, by Jefferson, or Bryan, or FDR himself, were always about proping up and preserving that which was invariably going to be under attack anyway (as Katherine’s whole post on tobacco emphasizes, I think). So yes, there was a lot piled up to create those conditions of gemeinshaftlichkeit, but that doesn’t mean pulling out one of the way supports for it wasn’t potentially like knocking over that first domino. Certainly Katherine’s friend seems to think so.

  7. Josh,

    Is it really true that we no longer have “good union jobs,” the “same frame of reference” in terms of labor, and a general socio-economic “familiarity” within communities? In most American towns and cities today these traits still exist.

    Many ordinary working people–to say nothing of many scholars–would disagree with you. I look around me here in Wichita, and I see a mid-sized city that actually has done a pretty good job in maintaining intact neighborhood communities…but one of the main reasons they’ve been able to do so is the aerospace industry: jobs from Cessna, Lear, Boeing, and so forth. As those places begin to cut back, I am seing neighborhood connections begin to atrophy, or even fall apart.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is something more than trying to prop up a dying culture by resurrecting a failed New Deal ideology.

    The New Deal ideology had some of the seeds of its own failure planted within it, that is true, but it also had many great successes in protecting the lives of people and protecting the communities they lived in. Perhaps it was doomed to fail as a prop to our dying culture, but if so, the same, of course, can be said of any program, whether it comes from the family or the church or the government. Everything passes away, in the end.

  8. Ms. Dalton,

    I would be most interested in reading any stories you have of your ancestors or those of your neighbors who settled the old Kentuc lands and those who took part in the “late unpleasantness.”
    I’m up river (Ohio) from you a-ways, so we differ in culture, language, and probably a few traditions. Your fellow Kentuckian, General Morgan, surrendered his command just a mile or so from our place.

  9. “Perhaps it was doomed to fail as a prop to our dying culture, but if so, the same, of course, can be said of any program, whether it comes from the family or the church or the government. Everything passes away, in the end.”

    Well, yes, but there have been, for lack of a better word, “programs” that have built and sustained civilization over centuries. The New Deal is not one of them, I don’t think. Yes, there were some good things from what I have been told, but the negatives–empire, war, dependency, etc–are, in my opinion, intolerable. If we had a legitimate government, then I might be more inclined to look to it for help.

    The basic obstacle I find in any sort of soft socialism remedy, is that the U.S. government’s record as a whole on protecting families and family farms is terrible.

  10. Mrs. Dalton

    I should clarify that I wasn’t actually suggesting that all these government jobs are a good thing overall. And I certainly wasn’t saying that commercial pop-culture is a good form of culture.

    The American communities I live in are economically stable and people do, generally, share a common “language.” And, yet, I still find this culture hollow and unsustainable. In other words, there is something much deeper troubling our communities than “not speaking the same language,” or losing “good union jobs.”

    I think the tobacco farming culture you speak of is more valuable, then, as a manifestation of a culture of goodness and beauty, than as a pragmatic way of bonding the community. We still have things that bond the community, but they do not produce a culture of goodness and beauty. I’m probably not explaining this very well, however.

  11. Mr. Cooney:

    Then I think we agree after all. Uprootedness, which for some people becomes (with many moves) rootlessness, and television are pretty hollowing. So are many other factors. But not every person is a hollow man. All I can do myself, and I don’t presume to give advice to others, is try to find and spend time with the people near me who have dug in where they are, and to dig in myself.

    Mr. Cheeks, I hesitate to tell family stories here, but if I have one that lends itself to a piece I’ll include it sometime. We don’t have any stories of prominent associations such as riding with Morgan. I suspect some of my relatives did as my cousin Ann’s forefather did: fought the army that threatened his county, then went home.

  12. Katherine hits on the fact that there is indeed a very large remnant of interactive localist culture that does not get press coverage from our hyperbolic media because it keeps its head down, avoids the spotlight and simply takes care of business, home and spirit. It is far larger than would seem to be indicated by the blithe ability of Washington to do things contrary to this population segment’s wishes or interests but it is likely that Washington’s ease in this regard may be coming to a close. Right now, the Vicarious Agora of our media, consumer and entertainment industries would seem to be the predominate expression of American Culture. It isn’t and never fully has been but…needless to say, this simulacrum is gaining strength because the nation has embraced industrial factory farming, exported manufacturing, debt-financed consumerism and service industry employment as a sustainable culture. This construct hit a wall and we have been given a world class seminar on what ails us but still, the central issue is not publicly addressed for fear of exposing the parasitical simulacrum because there is neither will notr imagination to envision a return to sanity. The Boosters of the Federal Edifice are elected within the artificial districts of this artificial construct and serve it near exclusively. Once in a while, the Cultural Eunuchs leave their Federal Harem and deign to mix with the local rustics and the special blend of fear and platitudes are dispensed , babies are kissed and smiles spread to maintain the illusion that Washington D.C. actually represents the majority.

    I used to scoff at Nader’s suggestion of a “none of the above” category but am beginning to think that it may be the only way to expose the gluttonous Oz for what it is. Their hold on the public’s imagination is weakening while a diverse and authentic culture across the country remains. This is the dirty little not-so-secret secret of the day.

    Modesty or whatever other chaste impulse leads you to avoid family stories that might elucidate the larger picture should be loosened up a bit because, after all, this be the Front Porch and lawsy if the nuts in the Family Tree aint a rich crop to share. Not that I might be so bold as to suggest you have a genetic propensity for nut harvests like I do…..Hayke No. Bring the family out the slamming screen door for a spell.

  13. Ms. Dalton,

    Thank you for your consideration. In the meantime I can always rejoin the Port William membership, I believe the town’s in Henry County, somewhere.

  14. Funnily enough I was thinking about a “none of the above” box just yesterady, Mr. Sabin. I’ve written to advocate one before, and was thinking again, for the millionth time, how useful it might be. Extremely unlikely, but pleasant to consider.

    Yes, Henry is Mr. Berry’s county.

  15. I can relate. I grew up and except for a few years lived near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It also is a big tobacco region, farming and manufacturing. Though it is flue cured and not burley. Daddy and a couple of my uncles worked for RJReynolds. It was a good place to work with good pay and benefits. I’m forty now but was thirteen the last year my uncles raised tobacco. It was my first job. I’ll never forget getting into the creek bottoms not long after first light when the dew was still heavy and priming tobacco. The leaves were wet and heavy. And you would get stiff from bending over from priming those lowest leaves. Then there was the heat of the day and working late into the evening stringing and housing the tobacco. I was to young to be in the top tiers. I stood on the lowest tier instead. Once all the tobacco was strung we could hear the whip-or-will sing to us. Being part of something places you into communion with those others who have shared the experience, both the living and the dead. But my country is dead now and I have no love for what has replaced it. To love a country that hates you isn’t patriotism. It’s servility.

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