The Jolly Rancher: “Don't Call The Fire Department”

  • Thursday, October 1, 2015
  • Jen Jeffrey

Autumn is definitely in the air and here in Kentucky. You can smell it.  We don’t have Starbucks in Murray, so I am not talking about ‘pumpkin spice anything’ … no, the endearing smell that curls around our nose letting us know that fall has arrived is something I never thought I’d be fond of.

When I walk out of my house the distinct smell of smoke fills my nostrils, but not in an offensive way. There are no chemicals or toxins burning … just a woodsy smell of sawdust burning as all the tobacco hanging in barns is fired.

One of Kentucky’s major crops is tobacco and if you visit us this this time of year you may see a few barns that appear to be on fire …but don’t call the fire department.

Our farmers know exactly what they are doing as they cure acres of leafy stalks hung up high in the rafters.

In my back yard is an old tobacco barn and it is one of my favorite scenes when I photograph sunrises in the early morning hours.

My husband and I raise horses and not crops, so what little I know about farming is what I learned in Chattanooga when I interviewed local farmers.

Some raised pigs, or cows and others grew corn, beans, arugula, tomatoes … and there were a few places I went where they raised sheep or llama. It was fascinating to learn what they did in order for their farm to succeed.

Last week, I drove to Lynn Grove KY to see my cousin Rob which is about 10 miles from where I live. I hadn’t seen him for a while, so it was just an impromptu visit and I wanted to give him a photo of he and I that I put in a frame I made that had “Family” written on it.

Rob is a cousin on Mama’s side – the Mortons. Most have passed away or moved off so I want my cousin to know it means a lot to me to have family here. When we were little, I don’t think he even remembered me because I was the baby and he was outside playing with my sisters.

Well, he called it playing, but my sister Jill called it ‘being mean’. He would pull her hair and chase her, the way some little boys did when they didn’t know how else to play with girls. Jill was not a tomboy and didn’t play sports, so chasing her was all he could come up with.

When I pulled up to where he has his office, I was greeted and invited in. He was talking with a woman who helps him with his business and motioned for us to go outside by his truck where we chatted and caught up just a bit.

Then, I turned around to the open building that adjoins his office and saw rafters full of Dark Fired tobacco. I asked him about it and he began explaining to me that this was ‘air cured’ and only about five acres worth.

Rob and I headed to another building close by which held tobacco already fired and bedded in crates ready to ship to Altria – a Phillip Morris Company. When we walked in, the smell was pungent. At first it smelled like marijuana (probably because there are no chemicals in marijuana and you just smell the plant). Rob laughed and assured me it wasn’t marijuana. I don’t think the man has ever done drugs in his life and he doesn’t drink either. He is a farmer and that is serious business – he keeps his head about him.

We went over to the open crates and I touched the soft leaves for my curiosity. I thought they would be crunchy after being fired, but they weren’t. The smell wasn’t unpleasant at all, but I knew it was so strong that it would be on my clothes and I may have to explain to my husband exactly where I had been.

Then Rob asked me if I wanted to see tobacco being fired. We walked passed his big trucks that displayed the name “Morton” on them and went to the firing barn where smoke was curling around the roof from the air vents.

The barn was different than the one behind my house. This one was not an old wooden barn like mine – it looked newer and made from material that looked like it would last. Rob unlatched the doors which were made of wood and smoke came barreling out.

It was fun for me to see this process. I had only been to one farm near Chattanooga to interview a farmer who grew tobacco. Mike Brown in Charleston TN raised cattle, grew vegetation and 260 acres of Burley tobacco in which he air cured, but it was wintertime when I interviewed him and I didn’t get to see the process.

Rob walked into the firing pit and expected me to follow. I wasn’t sure where I could walk without getting fired myself, so I tried to walk in Rob’s footsteps.

The tobacco was hanging over our heads and smoke hovered over burning sawdust rows … and in my lungs. This was a little different than smelling the smoke in the air when I walk outside of my house. I was in the pits and if I didn’t have tobacco smell on me before, I certainly did then!

I didn’t know how my cousin (who doesn’t smoke) could stand it without coughing. I choked up a little and my eyes watered as I listen to him tell me all about the process. I loved it though.

I liked the adventure of entering the dark fire pit and hoping not to melt. I liked learning about my heritage and witnessing what my family of farmers on my Mama’s side did for many years. I was proud of my cousin and his success and I liked learning something new. Having his barn burn a few times, Rob makes sure he is fully insured. “When a tobacco barn catches fire – it’s all gone,” Rob told me.

When I asked him what his favorite part of the tobacco process is he said, “Selling it!” He chuckled and he continued, “I guess I like the firing part pretty well. The secret to the whole thing is in the way it’s fired or cured. You can take a crop that doesn’t look too good in the ground and do a good job in the barn and make it really look good.” Rob uses hardwood sawdust and slabs to fire his tobacco.

When I got in my Jeep, I could smell where I had been and I just knew Jason would ask questions when I got home, but when I walked in the door and gave him a hug he didn’t say a word! He had been dealing with a sinus cold and could not hear or smell anything very well.

As for me, I could smell it until I got in the shower. That was the one time though, that I didn’t mind smelling like smoke.

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