Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Matthew E. Hill
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Ann E. Kingsolver
Fifth Committee Member
Burley tobacco--a key component in American-made cigarettes--has been produced in northeast Tennessee for well over a century. The economic importance of this crop and the peculiar nature of its production has had a profound influence on local agrarian culture. In Austin County, Tennessee--where I conducted approximately two years of ethnographic research--burley tobacco has become a marker of local identity. The crop is still transplanted, harvested, and processed manually. The work required to grow burley tobacco has been described by locals as "difficult, dirty, [and] sometimes dangerous." This is particularly true at harvest time when the five-foot plants must be cut by hand using a simple hatchet-like tool. The labor-intensive nature of the crop, the constraints of local geography (the Appalachian Mountains), and the limitations imposed by a New Deal initiative referred to as the Federal Tobacco Program kept burley tobacco farms small for much of the 20th century. Even so, the labor inputs needed to grow burley tobacco have remained high.
Traditionally, Austin County farm families have met their crop's demand for labor by "swapping" work. This reciprocal tradition was made possible by the ubiquitous production of the leaf in Austin County on a relatively small-scale. An examination of the political economy of burley tobacco, particularly as it relates to Austin County, Tennessee, I identify the conditions that (1) helped to shape the reciprocal tradition and (2) that encouraged or made possible the persistence of this tradition well into the 20th century. In addition, I examine the more recent shift from reciprocal labor to wage labor--specifically the increased use of Mexican and Central American migrant farmworkers.
I argue that the persistence of reciprocal labor in Austin County has influenced the ways in which rural families (particularly white, land-owning families) conceptualize burley tobacco farming and farm work. Even though most have adopted the use of migrant labor, the tradition of reciprocity contributes to locally specific ways of organizing and managing seasonal farm work. Rural families make use of many of the same strategies used nationwide by farm owners who employ seasonal migrant labor; however, the moral economy of reciprocity informs the management styles of most contemporary tobacco producers in Austin County. The social organization of burley tobacco work is further complicated by the "identity work" accomplished by farm owners. Despite their removal from the field and the curing barn, contemporary farm owner/operators continue to claim what I am calling a farmworking identity--an identity defined by an affinity to hard work, mutual aid, and respect. Both through farm work and discursive work these farm owner/operators are claiming, maintaining, and constructing the farmworking identity as it is conceptualized in Austin County. I argue that this "identity work" highlights and obscures social inequality in the field, the barn, and throughout Austin County as farmworking identities are constructed as both masculine and white. Cultural conceptions of farm work are produced locally by farmers and community members who draw on a shared work history. Although based on a notion of reciprocal labor, access to local definitions of farm work is unequal. These local constructions restrict the identities of some (i.e. women, low-income whites, and Mexican and Central American migrants) and provide others (i.e. white, male farm owners) the authority to claim conflicting identities--e.g farm owner and farmworker.
Burley tobacco—a key component in American-made cigarettes—has been produced in northeast Tennessee for well over a century. In Austin County, Tennessee—where I spent almost two years talking with and working alongside farm families—burley tobacco has become a marker of local identity. The manual work required to grow burley tobacco has been described by locals as “difficult, dirty, [and] sometimes dangerous.” This is particularly true at harvest time when the five-foot plants must be cut by hand using a simple hatchet-like tool. The labor-intensive nature of the crop, the constraints of local geography (the Appalachian Mountains), and the limitations imposed by a New Deal initiative referred to as the Federal Tobacco Program kept burley tobacco farms small for much of the 20th century. Even so, the labor inputs needed to grow burley tobacco have remained high—a labor requirement that Austin County families met by “swapping work” (or exchanging labor between farm families). In this dissertation I explore the way that burley tobacco, the political and economic conditions that led to smaller-scale agriculture (compared to the rest of the United States), and a tradition of exchanging labor contribute to local conceptions of tobacco farming and farm work. By concentrating on the way that contemporary farm families manage the more recent transition from “swapped work” to the use of Mexican and Central American migrant farmworkers, I hope to broaden our understanding of the use of migrant farmworkers to accomplish agricultural and other low-wage work in the United States.
Agriculture, Appalachia, Farm Work, Identity, Labor, Tobacco
xvi, 337 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 323-337).
Copyright 2015 Susanna Meredith Donaldson
Donaldson, Susanna Meredith. "Farmers and farmworkers : negotiating labor and identity in rural northeast Tennessee." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2015.