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The Norwegian- American Dairy-Tobacco Strategy in Southwestern Wisconsin*
    by Robert A. Ibarra and Arnold Strickon (Volume 32: Page 3)

*Research for this article was supported by the award to Arnold Strickon of HEW Grant MH 24587. Pilot projects leading to this research were funded by grants from the Research Committee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison awarded to Strickon and Herbert S. Lewis. The authors wish to express their sincere gratitude to Professor Lewis for his assistance throughout this project.

Southwestern Wisconsin is among the oldest and most successful locations of Norwegian agricultural settlement in the United States. Among its unique characteristics is the established relationship between Norwegian - and, afterwards Norwegian-American - farmers and the growing of tobacco. {1} This association between Norwegian-American identity and tobacco has received some academic attention by Karl B. Raitz in 1970 and more recently by the present authors {2} Both studies concentrated upon the history and dynamics of the relationship between Norwegians and tobacco. Further, they recognized tobacco as but a single element in a set of farm production strategies. Neither work, however, concentrated upon the larger interrelationships among Norwegian-American ethnic identity, tobacco cultivation, and the goals and purposes of agricultural production, on the one hand, and the strategies developed and followed to achieve those goals, on the other. It is the purpose of this essay to focus upon the question of farm production strategy relating to tobacco and the Norwegian-American farm community in southwestern Wisconsin.

The article will begin with an overview of the community in which the field research was done. This will be followed by a brief history of the association between Norwegians and tobacco in southwestern Wisconsin. The body of the paper will be devoted to a description of the Norwegian-American dairy-tobacco strategy in that region.


The ethnographic field work upon which this study is based was done by the authors between 1974 and 1976 in Vernon County, Wisconsin. {3} Vernon County, which lies south of the city of La Crosse, extends eastward for some fifty miles from the Mississippi River. The county is known for its large and active Norwegian-American community and for being one of the two principal tobacco-producing counties in the state.

Vernon County encompasses a landscape of rolling ridges, undulating narrow prairies, and steep-sided, deep stream- and river-cut valleys. The soils are generally good for the production of corn, grains, and tobacco. The climate is typical of the Upper Midwest with a growing season of 150-160 days.

The region was settled, beginning in the 1840s and continuing in significant numbers until the turn of the century, by a series of agriculturally inclined European immigrant populations. The earliest of these settlers were people of "old American stock" who, in local terminology, are referred to as "Yankees." Following closely behind them came Germans, Irish, Norwegians, Italians, and a small population of escaped slaves and freedmen. Toward the end of the century came Czechs and Sudeten Germans, who were locally identified as "Bohemians." Each of these populations settled in different sections of the county. Though there has been some shifting of the boundaries of these "ethnic regions" since the period of earliest European settlement, for the most part the descendants of these immigrant pioneers continue to represent the local majorities in each of their traditional regions in the county. The largest of these immigrant populations was the Norwegian. Their Norwegian-American descendants continue to constitute the largest single ethnic population in the county.

Farming communities in Vernon County are organized in patterns which geographers refer to as "open country neighborhoods." In this form of community organization farm families reside on their own farms in the countryside. Interpersonal relations are structured by social networks which bind farms through ties of friendship, kinship, and proximity. A number of such networks which cluster together and focus upon a country church or school constitute a neighborhood. Several such neighborhoods focus upon a service village, while larger towns serve as marketing and political centers.

In this part of Wisconsin, as in much of the rest of the state, these neighborhoods brought together co-nationals and co-religionists. Neighborhood, religion, nationality, and later ethnicity were tied together into a single social and geographic fabric. Where two national populations bordered each other they would each support their own churches, often within sight of each other, even if they were of the same denomination. It, however, one of the "nationalities" lacked a sufficiently large population to support their own church they would be welcomed, or at least accepted, in the church of their co-religionists of another nationality, language differences permitting. In a similar manner religious differences within a "national population," as for example between Catholic and Protestant Germans, also shaped rural networks and neighborhoods.

Within the Norwegian settlement, community boundaries were differentiated by the settlers' region of origin within Norway. For example, in Vernon county immigrants from the Sogn region of Norway tended to settle in and around the county seat of Viroqua, while people from the Gudbrandsdalen valley clustered in and around the villages of Westby and Coon Valley. These self-identified, intra-community boundaries are still sufficiently strong that Norwegian regional cultural differences, such as local dialects and food preferences, still exist and differentiate Vernon county Norwegian Americans.

The close association between tobacco and Norwegians cannot be attributed to some long-standing agriculture and cultural pattern in Norway which was carried over to the United States by immigrants. When the earliest Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States, tobacco had never been grown in Norway. {4} Tobacco was introduced to Norwegian immigrants in the earliest Norwegian settlements in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The crop, and the techniques for growing it, had been brought to this region by Yankee settlers from New England. Norwegians worked as hired laborers in the Yankees' tobacco fields and in the process gained the knowledge necessary to cultivate the crop. Tobacco was a highly profitable crop if the producer had an adequate amount of "free," that is family, labor available. The Norwegians, with relatively large families, ignorant of the language and ways of the country and therefore less able to take advantage of other kinds of opportunities which the Yankees could exploit, came to replace the Yankees as the primary producers of the crop.

Tobacco became known among Norwegians as a "mortgage lifter." A few good crops and a man could purchase his own farm, free and unencumbered. "For the Norwegian immigrants, the landless offspring of a society in which land and status, and even personal identity, were inseparable, a land of fierce and unrelenting primogeniture, this opportunity was not to be missed. Labor and obedience [within the family] were expected, had no financial cost, and reaped a rich reward.” {5}

These were the circumstances which provoked the link between Norwegian immigrants and their descendants and the cultivation of tobacco. As people moved north out of the original Norwegian colonies of northern Illinois they took their knowledge of tobacco with them and introduced it throughout southwestern Wisconsin. From that point on, however, the dynamics of the association between Norwegians and tobacco were in a constant state of flux, a state which continues until the present day. This association will be examined in a number of key periods during all of which tobacco remained a supplement to a major agricultural product. In the beginning the major crop was wheat but this was later replaced by dairying.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century the economic advantages of tobacco cultivation were immediately apparent to the non-Norwegian neighbors of the new settlers in Vernon County and the surrounding areas. The techniques of cultivation and processing were rapidly transmitted to the non-Norwegians, often by way of intermarriage, particularly with German men.

Initially, the sale of the tobacco, primarily used for cigar-wrapper and chewing tobacco, was made to traveling buyers representing eastern corporations. These buyers usually had to work through local assistants who served as translators in the dealings between immigrant producers and eastern buyers. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, one of these intermediaries, Martin Bekkedal, ventured into the business of tobacco commodity dealing and became the largest buyer in the region. He was Norwegian born, thoroughly rooted in the Norwegian community of Westby; the workers and managers in his business were themselves largely Norwegians from the Westby area, even when quartered in other communities.

By the 1920s other Norwegians from the same region began to develop a producers' cooperative run by and for tobacco farmers. Decision-making in the cooperative was allocated by county and township and reflected the proportion of total sales to the cooperative from a particular regional unit. By this rule Norwegian counties and townships dominated the legislative organs of the cooperative. Thus both private and cooperative commodity purchasing were owned or controlled by local Norwegians. As long as prices were high, all this mattered little to non-Norwegian tobacco producers.

But prices did not remain high. The coming of the Great Depression destroyed the previous price structure of tobacco with disastrous results. Across the region, with the exception of the Norwegian townships and neighborhoods, there was a mass exodus from tobacco production. Even today one can see abandoned tobacco-curing sheds as modern archaeological relics of the crash in tobacco prices. It appeared to people in the affected localities that only Norwegians remained with tobacco during and after the Depression. However, closer examination reveals that this is not the case. Rather, a higher percentage of Norwegians remained with the crop. It is not necessary to repeat here the lengthy argument developed in the authors' earlier study, but in terms of the current discussion it may be appropriate to summarize its conclusions. {6}

In the high-risk economic environment of the depression years, an environment in which the Federal Government sought to control the precipitous fall in the price of tobacco by attempting to discourage farmers from its production, the tobacco producer was faced with a crucial decision. Was he to remain with tobacco or was he to reallocate his resources in land, time, labor, and capital? Disproportionately, Norwegian-American farmers, and their adjacent non-Norwegian neighbors, stayed with the crop while non-Norwegian farmers in their own townships and ethnic communities for the most part chose to abandon tobacco cultivation. The major factor in this decision appears to have been related to the farmer's involvement in Norwegian communities, networks, and neighborhoods where tobacco was a high-priority crop. Non-Norwegians removed from the core tobacco-producing areas quickly restructured their resources and instead devoted themselves almost entirely to dairy cattle, the milk they produced, and the corn forage which they required.

The mechanism of this locally and ethnically differentiated reaction appears to have been the fact that marketing was, by an accident of history, largely concentrated in the hands of Norwegian-managed and -controlled institutions. The predominantly Norwegian communities knew and could evaluate the men who ran the tobacco cooperatives through their social networks, kin connections, and churches. Non-Norwegians who did not reside in close proximity to the Norwegian communities lacked these sources of information and therefore had less confidence in the future of the crop.

The resulting over-representation of Norwegian farmers among tobacco growers in the region was frozen and institutionalized in the years immediately after World War II by their acceptance of the tobacco allotment system. This system provided crop insurance and a government-guaranteed minimum price if the farmers in a region voted to honor the program's restrictions on tobacco production. These restrictions limited the amount of land each farmer could devote to tobacco production. This amount of land was called his allotment. The allotment was the property of the farmer and could be used by him, rented or leased by him to another farmer, or sold as part of or separate from, his farm. Although the allotment program could not prevent any farmer from growing all the tobacco he wished, to do so without the guarantees of parity and insurance provided by the allotment program was uneconomic and highly risky. Few, if any, chose that route.

The factor that froze the Norwegians into the disproportionate predominance in tobacco cultivation that still characterizes them was the fact that in order for the farmers in a locality to participate in the allotment program it was necessary for them to vote for it. More to the point was the fact that the only farmers who could vote in the program, and the only ones to benefit from it, were those who had produced tobacco for five years before the election was held. In southwestern Wisconsin this meant the election and the program were to be limited to the Norwegians and their neighbors who had stayed with the crop through the difficult years of the '30s and '40s.

However, tobacco had always been a supplement to a major crop. In the nineteenth century it had supplemented wheat. More recently dairying had been the major economic activity in the region for tobacco growers and non-tobacco growers alike. It is this mix of dairy farming and tobacco cultivation, this complex archetypal strategy of the Norwegian-American farmer of the region, that will now be examined.


The current agricultural strategy began taking shape in Vernon and surrounding counties during the 1880s when local farmers, somewhat later than in other parts of Wisconsin, began shifting away from wheat production as their major economic pillar because of the spreading wheat blight and the growing competition of High Plains wheat growers. {7} This change in productive orientation was signaled by an increased experimentation in the area with fruit growing, cattle, and small livestock production. {8}

In 1880 there were only a few cheese factories in Vernon County; creameries were scarcer still. Some Norwegian farmers in the northern part of the county maintained small herds of goats for milk and the home processing of Norwegian cheeses. {9} After 1880, however, the number of dairy herds in the county increased, as did the frequency of scientific breeding. This development was initiated by "Yankee" farmers but the Norwegians also came to see the value of these practices. {10} A growth in the number of dairy processing plants reflected the increase in the number of dairy herds. {11} As early as 1895 over one million pounds of creamery butter were produced in Vernon and surrounding counties. {12} Within fifteen years of that date outputs of butter, cheese, and condensed milk had established Vernon and neighboring counties as an important dairy region within Wisconsin. {13} Much of the processing was done by local creameries. The important role of dairying in Vernon County expanded in the years that followed.

Dairy farming remains important in Vernon County. In the mid-1970s the county ranked thirteenth out of seventy-two counties in the number of milk cows and fourth in the state in the number of dairy herds. Eighty-four percent of the 2,451 farms in Vernon County are dairy farms. The value of dairy and dairy-related products, including meat animals, which are for the most part culled, overage, non-producing dairy animals, and most field crops in the county, represented ninety-five percent of the value of all agricultural cash receipts. Tobacco, on the other hand, represented a mere .07 percent of the agricultural cash receipts of the county’s farmers. {14} It is, then, within this economic context that the adherence of Norwegian-American farmers and their neighbors to the production of tobacco must be considered.

In an overall economic view tobacco is of small consequence. Yet within the region it has a visibility out of proportion to its economic importance and to the relatively small number of farmers who grow it. In southwestern Wisconsin tobacco has assumed a symbolic significance as a marker of rural Norwegian-American ethnic identification. The strength of this identification with Norwegian-American culture led Karl Raitz, in his comprehensive study "The Location of Tobacco Production in Western Wisconsin" (1970), to the conclusion that "Tobacco farming is not an economically viable endeavor which is locationally influenced by climate, edaphic conditions, topography, or historic continuity." He argued that it is, rather, "a residual of an anachronistic social institution.” {15}

In their earlier paper the present authors argued against this position on both theoretical and substantive grounds. Theoretically, the view that economic and cultural "explanations" were mutually exclusive was rejected. Rather, it was concluded that "ethnicity [which is to say 'culture'] and economics are better considered as variables in a single equation, the output of which is, in this case, the decision to grow tobacco.” {16} Raitz's interpretation was rejected on substantive grounds because it appeared to be based upon an excessively narrow view of "economic rationality." He argues that tobacco cultivation is profitable only when very low cost or free labor is available and that greater profits per acre could be generated by alternative auxiliary crops or by redirecting land from tobacco to the support of additional dairy cattle. {17}

But "economic rationality" need not be defined solely by dollars of profit per acre. Other factors may intervene, such as labor costs, which were recognized by Raitz, but also by the value added to a farm by the fact that it may be sold with its owner's allotment as part of the sale. In addition there are costs involved if a farmer shifts labor, land, and capital from one production effort to another. Finally, there are other constraints upon economic decisions beyond mere profitability. There are also considerations of risk and safety, and the role a particular undertaking and the income derived from it play in a farmer's total production package. In their earlier paper the present authors could deal with only some of these variables in their argument that tobacco production "represents an extremely subtle relationship within the opportunity structure of the region's agro-economy. {18}

In this study some details of tobacco production which help explain the successful symbiotic relationship, the "fit," between tobacco production and dairy farming activities need to be explored. This relationship, the tobacco-dairy complex, is a finely-tuned alignment of farm schedules, crop patterns, and dairy herd management which constitutes a small-farm production strategy for many Norwegian farmers in the Vernon county area. Ultimately it will be suggested that this "traditional" farming pattern has up to now proved to be an effective safeguard for the small farmer against serious economic fluctuations.


As already noted, the geographer Karl Raitz came to the conclusion that soils, climate, and other aspects of the physical environment did little to dictate the distribution of tobacco in southwestern Wisconsin. This fact reflects the hardiness and adaptability of the plant. In spite of this, however, the plant requires that the farmer go through a protracted, complex, and detailed process of production. The most striking aspect of this process is that the cultivation of tobacco has been little mechanized. The work cycle for it requires intensive, hard manual stoop labor. {19}

The cultivation process begins in April with the preparation of seed beds for the initial germination of the plants. These seed beds must be steamed to reduce weeds and control diseases. After the seeds have been steamed, they are planted and the bed is enclosed with a muslin-covered wooden frame for protection of the young plants when they sprout. By late June or early July, when the seedlings are about six inches high, they are transplanted into the tobacco fields. These have been prepared beforehand by plowing, fertilization, and harrowing. The seedlings are individually inserted by hand in rows by a two-worker team consisting of a tractor driver pulling a transplanter on which rides another worker who takes seedlings and manually plants them in the earth as the tractor slowly pulls them along. A "mechanized" team of this kind can set a five-acre field in three days. Small allotments or poorer farmers may carry out this phase of cultivation completely by hand. In either case, if plants are later found to be damaged or diseased they are replaced manually.

planting Tobacco

Early in the spring, ground is prepared for the planting of tobacco seed by plowing and then steaming the ground. The steaming sanitizes the ground and reduces weed growth. In the background is a typical tobacco barn. The vertical boards of which the sides are made can be rotated, thereby opening or closing the sides of the barn in order to control the temperature and airflow during the curing process.

Tobacco beds

After plowing and steaming, the tobacco seeds are planted and the beds are covered with muslin for protection. Here the plants remain until they are mature enough to be transplanted to the fields.

Field care requires hand hoeing, cultivation, and the eradication of insect pests. Once the plant has formed seeds each bud is "topped" manually by having the upper part of the stem snapped off in order to thicken the leaves, stimulate growth, and increase nicotine content. Topping also stimulates axial shoots or "suckers" which must then be removed manually. A good worker can top an acre in three to five hours and remove suckers in an additional four to six hours per acre. Harvest demands more labor, almost all of it manual, than any other phase of the tobacco cycle. At this point all physically able members of the family are called upon to help and often even with the availability of family labor it may still be necessary to call upon poorly paid wage labor for assistance. Labor demand in the tobacco region is so great during harvest that it is common practice for high school students to be given leaves of absence in order to work in the fields, whether or not they are from farm families themselves.


Tobacco's voracious need for nutrients places heavy demands on the soils unless nutrients are replaced in large amounts by natural or artificial fertilizers. Adequate nutrients not only protect the productivity of the soil but also maintain a high quality of leaf. When the switch from wheat to dairy farming began it had an immediately beneficial effect upon tobacco growing because dairy cows increased the availability of manure to serve as fertilizer for the tobacco fields.

While livestock provided fertilizer for the tobacco fields the cows, in turn, required year-round attention plus adequate feed, in terms of both amount and quality of forage and fodder, in order to insure high milk production. In the developmental years of the tobacco-dairy complex tobacco farmers relied on pasturage rather than fodder for their cattle. All available manure was placed on the tobacco ground while the remaining fields went unfertilized. {20} With the introduction of hybrid corn, farmers were led to devote some of the manure to their corn fields. Yet even today many farmers informed one of the authors that they put three times more manure on their tobacco grounds than on any other fields.

While there are clear advantages to the union of dairying and tobacco in a single operation, there are also disadvantages. The disadvantages appear to affect primarily the dairy side of the equation. The problem in part is a result of conflicting work cycles and agricultural priorities for dairy-tobacco farmers. For example, for modern dairying to be profitable, according to dairymen, at least three cuttings of alfalfa are required for an average-size herd of thirty-five Holsteins. Alfalfa is a semi-permanent hay crop which is first planted in late April. While oats are brought in around May, the first cutting of alfalfa may not occur until the following year, after which it can be cut repeatedly like grass for a number of years. In the second year after planting, farmers try to get a first cutting off by June before planting tobacco. The second cutting is ideally brought in by the Fourth of July. During the 1940s the dairy-tobacco farmer rarely began haying until after tobacco was planted in late June or early July. The lack of modern machinery in the tobacco side of the operation further slowed or delayed the cultivation cycle. {21}

Transplanting machine

The only mechanized part of production, aside from plowing, is the use of a tobacco transplanting machine such as the one pictured here. The machine is pulled by a tractor and carries two workers. They place the plants in the wheel, which then inserts the seedlings from the earlier tobacco beds into the soil which has been prepared by the transplanter.

The only mechanized part of production, aside from plowing, is the use of a tobacco transplanting machine such as the one pictured here. The machine is pulled by a tractor and carries two workers. They place the plants in the wheel, which then inserts the seedlings from the earlier tobacco beds into the soil which has been prepared by the transplanter.

Between about 1920 and 1940 tobacco-dairy farmers generally began their farm activity cycles in early April with planting of oats followed immediately by the steaming of the tobacco beds. In May, corn for silage was planted and tobacco seedlings were tended. In June the tobacco was transplanted from seed beds to the fields, corn was cultivated, and the first harvest of alfalfa was made. Oats were harvested in July, followed by a midsummer slow period during which a second cutting of hay might occur. In early August and into September tobacco was harvested and corn cut, leaving little time for tobacco farmers to get a third cutting of alfalfa. By October and November fall plowing had to be completed. Most often the fields which received priority in the fall plowing were the tobacco grounds, since early spring was the time farmers spent piling up manure and tobacco stalks to spread on them. Consequently, Oats might not get planted on time because of the manure spreading, and the crucial third cutting of alfalfa rarely took place. Tobacco, because of its high priority, would not only compete for manure with other crops but by so doing would reduce the amount and/or the quality of feed available to maintain even average milk production in a herd. In other words these farmers sacrificed potentially greater milk production to the immediate demands of tobacco.

The picture today has altered relatively little. Some changes have been made, largely in the mechanization of the production of corn and alfalfa and the introduction of artificial fertilizers and herbicides. Oats have ceased to be a major crop because of a drop in market prices, which in turn reflected the disappearance of the horse as a source of farm labor and its replacement by the internal combustion engine. A first crop of hay (alfalfa) is now put up before tobacco is planted. Also farmers now use several varieties of hay with different maturation cycles, which permits the stringing out of hay cutting over the summer.

Even with these changes many local experts believe that tobacco farmers are still unable to produce adequate hay for their dairy herds. Most farmers would simply buy feed to make up for this shortage. But, say these local observers, "Norwegians have a frugal, tightwad attitude. They don't buy any extra feed, and without that third crop of hay they are never going to get any milk out of their cows. {22}

The tobacco cycle not only competes with the feed and forage cycle; it also is in competition with the production cycle of the cows themselves. {23} A cow generally gives milk only ten months of the year and needs to be freshened annually for milk production. Most modern dairymen seek uniform milk production; thus individual cows are allowed to dry up and are bred on varying schedules. Before modern methods of uniform production, however, if cows came into milk on different schedules, tobacco work would be seriously affected. Tobacco growers, therefore, resorted to controlling their herds simply by manipulation of breeding dates so that cow cycles did not conflict with the tobacco cycle. Thus, they were "tuning" their herds to fit the tobacco schedule. For example, it was expected that replacement heifers added to the herd would freshen in the early fall. To avoid conflicts with the tobacco harvest, tobacco-dairy farmers bred their heifers much later than did other farmers. As a result, the average freshening in Norwegian areas is closer to Christmas, a pattern which continues to the present.

Silage, or stored feed, is also a variable in the dairy-tobacco equation. Before 1920 and the advent of silos in the community farmers generally had more acres in pasture than in cropland. Since "Norwegian" cows freshened around Christmas the herds were often pastured in the winter when they began to produce milk well. Milk production would increase when a tobacco farmer had more time to attend to his herd. In the summer when these farmers were busiest with tobacco the cows would tend to dry up. The herd, then, was manipulated to fit in with the tobacco cycle. This tended to cause shorter lactation periods, thus reducing overall milk production.

The use of silage reduces the farmer's dependence upon pasturage for milk production by preserving high energy feeds, primarily corn and alfalfa in this region, produced during the growing season for use throughout the year. The most efficient but also the most expensive means of preserving food crops for the livestock is the Harvestore type of silo. These large blue metal vacuum silos are ubiquitous throughout the region. They produce a higher quality silage than the ordinary form of silo, but they are extremely expensive and in order for them to be cost effective a fairly large herd and source of feed and a closely controlled feeding program are required. Such controls are not likely to be found on smaller farms. This technology is generally not associated with tobacco producers, who continue to use older style, less capital-intensive silo technology.

Still another variable in the interaction between tobacco and dairying is the question of the breeds of livestock which the predominantly Norwegian farmers of the region raise as opposed to those breeds usually associated with more modern, large-scale dairy operations. The difference lies between those farmers who raise what are called, in local parlance, "colored cows" and those who raise the most common American dairy breed, the black and white Holsteins. This choice of colored cows (that is, Jerseys and Guernseys) which are preferred by most of those involved in the traditional tobacco and dairy production is seen by extension workers and other experts on the local scene as detrimental to local production and is considered by them as counterproductive to the farmers' interests. The first drawback to the non-Holstein breeds are that they do not produce as much milk as Holsteins.

In 1971 Vernon county's 1,725 herds were only 11.7 percent of Grade A quality; in comparison Dane county's 1,639 herds were 73.5 percent Grade A. According to Professor Clarence Olson of the University of Wisconsin the persistence of what he called "the colored cow syndrome" is due directly to the region's Norwegian farmers. This continuing attachment to the Guernsey and the Jersey has been attributed to the fact that the traditional farmer in Norway was accustomed to working with "red" cattle and not the "black and whites" of Germany and the low countries.

Although there has been a reduction in the number and proportion of colored livestock in Vernon County, the Norwegian areas of that county still show the importance of these breeds. While Holsteins make up ninety-three percent of the total dairy herd in Wisconsin, the situation in the Norwegian communities in Vernon county is quite different. {24} According to estimates of the operators of a local breeding cooperative in the heart of the Norwegian settlement, the colored breeds Brown Swiss, Guernsey, and Jersey, constitute fifty-five percent of the total herd. This is the highest proportion of these breeds in Wisconsin and very likely in the nation as well.

But there is more than ethnic preference and sentimental memory involved in this choice of Guernsey and Jersey. These breeds produce milk of a higher butterfat content than do the Holsteins. Since the turn of the century this region has been a producer of butter and cheese, which demand a high butterfat content in the milk used in their production. In addition milk destined for the butter and cheese market need not meet Grade A standards, which were set for milk destined for direct consumption by human beings.

After the 1920s the growing demand for whole milk led to the introduction of bulk milk equipment and the growing shift to Holstein cattle which produce a large amount of milk, roughly eighty pounds per day, versus about thirty pounds per day by colored cattle. However, this pattern did not emerge as strongly in the Norwegian community of central Vernon County. Small farms were unable to maintain a sufficiently large Holstein herd. Small pastures which could maintain approximately forty Jerseys could support only twenty-five Holsteins. The problem was compounded when hay crops were too small and feed prices were too high.

Barn size was another problem. Norwegian barns were built to last. Made of wood cut from their own farm land, these structures often held up longer than do modern barns. But these barns were built to accommodate the smaller colored cows, and farmers had problems getting Holsteins into stalls designed for Guernseys or Jerseys. A 1,000 pound cow, either a fairly large Jersey or a very small Holstein, was about the largest animal the old barns could accommodate. Farmers who considered remodeling their barns were aware that the cow size/barn size ratio meant that for every 1,000 pounds of cow they could expect 500 pounds of milk per week. But they also knew that after 1,000 pounds of cow, the ratio of income to feed costs actually declines. That is, while the Holsteins produce more milk than the smaller colored breeds their energy efficiency is lower. They produce less milk for a given amount of feed than do their colored cousins. Most smaller farmers felt that the potential increase did not justify the cost of remodeling their barns and changing the breed of their herds. Some implemented a mini-max strategy by attempting to introduce small Holsteins and keeping mixed herds of small Holsteins and colored stock in an attempt to increase their milk production. Replacement cows, however, were expensive, and because of the cost of remodeling few tobacco farmers wanted to take on the necessary debts and risks inherent in any change in production strategy.

Farmers who did respond to the opportunities offered by the expanding market for Grade A milk and modernized their facilities and herds looked down upon the small, traditional Norwegian farmers as conservative. They were seen as merely holding their own and missing the opportunity significantly to expand their operations.


The traditional tobacco-dairy farmer sought an operation that was as self-sufficient as possible. This meant minimal capitalization, dependence upon unpaid labor, basically family labor but also neighbor exchange, and as little debt as possible. Responding to opportunities offered by the expansion in the market for Grade A milk, some farmers reacted directly to economic incentives, and indirectly to programs pushed by agricultural extension service workers. These factors encouraged them to expand their land and herds, and invest in modern, expensive bulk-milk-handling equipment and Harvestore silos. They dropped tobacco altogether or at least reduced it to a minor place in their production strategy. It was these "modern" farmers who tended to deprecate those of their neighbors who still placed considerable importance on growing tobacco at the expense of dairy production.

Local farmers, then, see two general categories of farmer, modern and traditional. The distinction is marked by differences in the level of capitalization. The traditional farmers, with limited capitalization, generally have farms in the range of 40 to 100 acres. Nearly sixty percent of the Norwegian farm population around Westby fall into this category. These small farmers grow five acres of tobacco, have little tillable acreage and feel incapable of expanding their operations. They average forty acres of hay and corn and twenty acres of oats without double cropping. Their dairy herds of fifteen to twenty-five cows are mixed, that is, Holsteins and colored, and usually the milk that moves off the farm is not Grade A and is, therefore, not destined for the whole milk market. For these farmers tobacco has priority over dairy production. They feel that tobacco pays the mortgage and the taxes and sends the kids to college, while their dairy operation covers running expenses. On these farms tobacco goes into the drying shed before hay goes into the barn. They do not double-crop but rather rely on a combination of pasturage and a supplement of purchased feed to get them through the year.

According to large-dairy proponents, the traditional farmer sees only the immediate return from his tobacco (about $1,100 per acre at the time of the authors' field work in the early 1970s) and fails to see the long-term return from better milk production. Some critics of the Norwegian tobacco-dairy complex feel that merely taking two acres out of tobacco and putting two to five Holsteins on the land instead would result in a more profitable dairy operation. What the traditional farmer sees in such a suggestion is reduced tobacco profits, additional feed costs, and an extremely problematic improvement in milk production, since the tobacco fields may not be easily accessible to livestock, as they are often on the bottom and sides of steep valleys.

The locally described "modern" farm, while not large by most North American standards, is larger than the local "traditional" farm. Some thirty to forty percent of Vernon county farms, varying in size between 100 and 200 acres, fall into this category. The farmers in this category, many of them Norwegian, gear their operations almost entirely to high production of Grade A milk. With an average of forty to fifty registered Holsteins, they never consider mixing their herds. {25} These farmers are conscientious about their hay crops and will often put in eighty acres of hay with at least two cuttings a year, depending upon the capacity of their silos. The number and type of silos is a visual measure of a farmer’s success and a symbol of his economic standing and prestige. These farmers also rely on good commercial feeding programs in conjunction with silage for their cattle.

Even so, these larger farms often have as little as thirty tillable acres. Their crops are primarily a fifty-fifty combination of corn and alfalfa. They feel justified, because of their larger acreage, in purchasing a good deal of labor-saving, large-farm machinery. They maintain good field rotation and generally put in a lot of hay before their tobacco, if they grow it at all.

When grown on larger farms tobacco is viewed as a sideline and not as a major activity. Depending upon market conditions these farmers may vary their actual tobacco acreage within the limits of their allotment. Tobacco provides a nice bonus, but the farmers do not depend upon it as a significant source of income.

As with the traditional farmers, modern farmers also depend upon family labor for tobacco production. At harvest time family workers will be supplemented by exchange labor with neighbors and/or low-cost labor by high school students released from school for that purpose. When children grow up and leave the farm and the labor required for tobacco becomes costly, then it is likely that tobacco farmers will either reduce their tobacco acreage, rent their allotment in order to maintain their rights in it, or sell it and drop out of tobacco production altogether.

Harvesting tobacco

The tobacco is harvested, one leaf at time, by workers using a tobacco chopping tool. This is typical of the manual stoop labor characteristic of tobacco cultivation.

Spearing tobacco

After the tobacco is harvested it is "speared" onto a wooden lathe one leaf at a time, the work being done by the woman in the photo. It is then brought, usually by tractor, to the tobacco barn where it is stored and cured.

After the tobacco is harvested it is "speared" onto a wooden lathe one leaf at a time, the work being done by the woman in the photo. It is then brought, usually by tractor, to the tobacco barn where it is stored and cured.

Large-scale family labor is not a flexible resource in the region. Family labor not used for tobacco is not easily reallocated to other income-producing activities on the farm or elsewhere in the community. Non-tobacco farm activities are increasingly capital-rather than labor-intensive. Milking and preparing milk for shipment is largely automated. If a field is redirected from tobacco to corn or alfalfa, topographical conditions permitting, it will be worked by farm machinery, not by the wife and children of the farmer. Nor is there much in the way of non-farm employment in the region which will provide income equivalent to that produced in the tobacco fields. No matter what the farm size, reduction or cessation of tobacco growing, as long as "free" family labor is available, is throwing out an income-producing resource without replacing it.

Not everyone agrees that the modern farmers' strategy is necessarily the superior one, a doubt which in recent years appears to be reinforced by events. Even as early as the mid-1970s some local businessmen were seriously concerned about the financial consequences and risks in the "modern" strategy. One informant said that the big dairy operations “just aren't making it, and a lot are over their heads.” {26} Some had gone $100,000 into debt with consequent heavy interest payments. At that time they may have been seeing less than $25,000 a year before taxes. The expansion of the "large" dairy farms was occurring on the foundation of rapidly expanding land values. Farms which were valued at Only $20,000 at the end of the 1960s were valued at $50,000 by the mid-'70s. {27}

In the opinion of local bankers and agro-businessmen, the farmers that follow the tobacco-dairy strategy are the only farmers in the area with liquid reserves. "The truth is, the small farmer knows his limitations and doesn't go into expensive equipment. He may work a little harder, but it's a nice feeling to have your place clear with a small herd, basic machinery, and not be in debt. It's a conservative strategy.” {28}

"Norwegians," stated a locally-based dairy expert, "want to be independent and debt free. They do anything to accomplish those two things." An example of this attitude is a Norwegian estate probated in the Westby region in the mid-1970s which had liquid assets of $100,000, yet the farmhouse itself lacked plumbing and running water. {29}

Events since the mid-1970s suggest that those farmers who followed the tobacco-dairy strategy may, in the long run, have been better prepared to survive the farm crisis of the first half of the 1980s than those of their peers who chose the more "modern" and capital, debt, and interest intensive alternative of straight dairy production. {30} Although the boundary between these two categories of farm is largely determined by farm size, the different ethnic distribution of the farmers who practice these two production strategies results in a larger impact upon the social and cultural life of the Norwegian-American community by the followers of the "traditional" than the "modern" strategy. It is tobacco as a symbol of Norwegian-American identity which has intruded itself into the rural culture of western Wisconsin, not the Harvestore silo. {31}

The traditional Norwegian-American family farm has proved itself a survivor in a random, almost Darwinian response to environmentally selective pressures generated both by the market place and by government policies. {32} However, this does not mean that because the traditional farm has survived thus far it is forever safe. What the effects of reduced tobacco consumption and/or a change in tobacco price supports and allotment programs by the government would be, one cannot say. Although, on the face of it, such developments would appear to spell the end of the tobacco-dairy complex as a viable production strategy one can only wonder if such a development would be any worse for the region's farmers than the wheat blight of the last decades of the nineteenth century or the Great Depression of the twentieth.


Karl Raitz, in 1970, was so taken by the close connection between Norwegian-American farmers and the growing of tobacco and the apparent lack of a direct economic link between profit and tobacco cultivation that he turned to a cultural explanation as the motivation of Norwegian-American farmers in southwestern Wisconsin to produce that crop. What the present authors argued in their earlier study, and in more detail here, is that the economic significance of tobacco must be appreciated not in terms of simple profit and loss statements for the particular crop, but rather as part of a complex production plan in which not only profit, but also marginal costs, risks, and goals must be taken into account. From this point of view, tobacco has played a key role in a production strategy that contrasts strongly with a strict dairy strategy which stresses only the profit and loss statement. In the conservative, traditional system which characterizes the preponderance of Norwegian farmers, the role of family labor and the lack of alternative uses for it, the costs of switching cattle breeds, the lack of clearly advantageous marginal benefits in dairy pasturage and feed production involved in shifting tobacco land to other uses, the effects of the tobacco allotment upon the value of the farm, the goal of security, freedom from debt, and the availability of liquid assets, all appear to be maximized by a plan which balances tobacco off against dairy production.

What has kept tobacco-dairy a viable strategy up until the present seems indeed to be connected to Norwegian-American rural culture. But it is not a Norwegian love of tobacco for its own sake, a tradition which is in itself valued, although that occurs among some individuals. It is rather a stress upon the family farm and the personal and community values which orbit around it. It is here that sustenance rather than profit is significant, and financial profit in the strict sense is not the sole goal and measure of satisfaction.


<1> In local usage the term "Norwegian" is used to signify both the people of Norway and "Norwegian-Americans." Which of the two is meant is usually perfectly clear from the context. Local practice will be followed in the balance of this article and the term "Norwegian American" will be used only when it is necessary to do so for reasons of clarity or emphasis.

<2> Karl B. Raitz, "The Location of Tobacco Production in Western Wisconsin," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1970). Arnold Strickon and Robert A. Ibarra, "The Changing Dynamics of Ethnicity: Norwegians and Tobacco in Wisconsin," in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 6:2 (1983), 174-197.

<3> This part of the article is wholly based upon the authors' earlier study, "The Changing Dynamics of Ethnicity." All sources for statements made in this section will be found in that article.

<4> In fact, tobacco cultivation was introduced to Norway by immigrants to western Wisconsin who returned to their places of origin in Sogn in the late nineteenth century. It never really caught on as a significant crop in Norway, largely because of a fiscal policy which depended upon taxes imposed on imported tobacco as an important source of government income. See Jan Henrik Munksgaard, "Tobakksdyrking i Sogn 1882-1920," in Blader av tobakkens historie (Oslo,1978), 111-137.

<5> Strickon and Ibarra, "Changing Dynamics," 181.

<6> Strickon and Ibarra, "Changing Dynamics," 182-189.

<7> Unless otherwise documented, data for this Section was obtained in the course of the field research described earlier. Further detail and documentation will be found in Robert A. Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious: A Study of a Norwegian Community in Rural Wisconsin" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1976).

<8> See Benjamin Horace Hibbard, "The History of Agriculture in Dane County, Wisconsin," in Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin No. 101, Economics and Political Science Series, 1/2 (1904), 67-214; Wisconsin Rural Resources- Vernon County (Madison, 1957); Eric E. Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin: A Study in Agricultural Change 1820-1920, (Madison, 1963).

<9> Hjalmar R. Holand, Coon Valley (Minneapolis, 1976), 15.

<10> Leola Nelson Bergmann, America us from Norway (Philadelphia, 1950), 71.

<11> See Vernon County: Overall Economic Development Plan (Viroqua, Wisconsin, 1967).

<12> Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy industry, 271.

<13> Wisconsin Rural Resources, 55.

<14> Wisconsin Cash Receipts, County Estimates 1965-1973 (Madison, 1975), 683.

<15> Raitz, "The Location of Tobacco Production," 284, 291.

<16> Strickon and Ibarra, "Changing Dynamics," 185.

<17> Raitz, "The Location of Tobacco Production," 275-277.

<18> Strickon and Ibarra, "Changing Dynamics," 189.

<19> The description of the tobacco production process in this section is based upon observation and upon an excellent description of the cultivation process found in Raitz, "The Location of Tobacco Production," 127-135.

<20> Raitz, "The Location of Tobacco Production," 124.

<21> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious" 112

<22> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious " 115

<23> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious," 115-122.

<24> "Dairy Herd Improvement Progress Report" (Madison, 1975), 43.

<25> Some larger farms combine feed-lot operations with their dairy production. Feed-lot herds are usually not Holsteins, they do not breed with the dairy herds and are kept completely separate from them.

<26> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious," 128.

<27> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious," 129.

<28> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious" 129

<29> Ibarra, "Ethnicity Genuine and Spurious" 129

<30> The "suggestion," of course, derives from newspaper reports which, on a national basis, indicate that smaller, debt-free farms were proving more flexible even before the current "agricultural crisis" than heavily debt-ridden larger operations. See Capitol Times (Madison), May 24, 1982. The authors were recently awarded a small grant by the Coordinating Committee for American Ethnic Studies of the University of Wisconsin System which will enable them to return to Vernon county in order to study this question and its effects upon Norwegian-American ethnicity and the tobacco-dairy strategy in this region.

<31> See Strickon and Ibarra, "Changing Dynamics."

<32> Sidney M. Greenfield and Strickon, "Entrepreneurship and Social Change," in Greenfield and Strickon, eds., Entrepreneurs in Cultural Context (Albuquerque, 1979), 329-350.


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