clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tennessee kids grow tobacco in high school

They can't smoke or chew tobacco, but the leaf is part of daily life and even class work for some teenagers at David Crockett High School.

This is tobacco farming country and about 200 agriculture-vocational students at the school grow tobacco on school ground, as do pupils in about 30 other high schools in Tennessee."We have programs involved in tobacco because the community is involved in it," said Will Lewis, director of secondary vocational programs for the state Education Department.

Tobacco-growing instruction has been offered since 1917, mainly in eastern and central Tennessee.

David Crockett High is in northeast Tennessee, where many families grow tobacco to supplement their income. Tobacco was Tennessee's fourth-largest cash crop last year, with a value of nearly $225 million.

Teacher Mike Garland estimated that half of his students will be farmers and an additional 25 percent will have jobs in agriculture-related industries.

Matthew Hensley, a David Crockett senior, said he probably will take over his family farm when he gets older. He is worried about federal efforts to reduce tobacco use and whether it will curtail tobacco farming.

"If he keeps on it, it will," he said, referring to President Clinton.

"He's just hurting people like us," said fellow senior Jeff Story.

Despite health warnings and federal moves to tighten restrictions on tobacco, most Tennessee tobacco farmers have refused to change crops. They get a better return on tobacco, and the mountainous terrain and climate are better suited for tobacco than other crops, they say.

Burley tobacco , the predominant type grown in Tennessee, fetches about $4,000 per acre. By contrast, an acre of corn will bring only about $350.

Tobacco is only part of David Crockett's agriculture-vocational program. Students also raise dairy and beef cattle, work in a greenhouse, grow produce and learn how to run a farm. That includes instruction in the chemistry of fertilizers and how to repair farm machinery.

The school's tobacco crop is grown on an acre plot, out past the football field.

When the tobacco is sold at fall market, the profit of about $2,000 goes back into the program for field trips and teaching materials.