Photo Gallery: For Hadley family, growing tobacco is in their blood

Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

HADLEY — Unlike many crops, tobacco is harvested the exact same way it was hundreds of years ago: by hand. To be more accurate, by lots of hands.

At the Kelley farm in Hadley this summer, that means two acres of broadleaf tobacco was harvested by Edward Kelley, 84, his wife Catherine Kelley, 83, 10 of their 12 children, two son-in-laws, one nephew, five grandchildren, aged seven to 16, plus a few of the grandchildren’s teenage friends.

The method of harvesting the crop may not have changed, but the tobacco industry that has been a staple of Hadley agriculture for centuries is changing.

And the Kelley Farm has evolved with it. In the 1950s, a surplus of tobacco led the federal government to restrict farms to only growing a few acres of tobacco, so Kelley Farm started raising cucumbers, too.

The market stabilized and in the following decades, a tobacco-buying center was set up in an old roller skating rink in Holyoke, Edward Kelley said. Farmers could bring their tobacco by the bundle, government “graders” would decide what the level of quality was, and growers would go home with a check that same day.

In the late 1980s, Edward Kelley said, the tobacco market came back and the price went from $6 a pound up to $10.

“Then everybody wanted to raise tobacco,” Catherine Kelley said. “They all fixed up their tobacco barns again.”

Kelley and his son, William Kelley, said a downturn in the market for the broadleaf tobacco grown in Hadley — the large leaves are used to wrap cigars — means that many area farms have cut down on the acres they’re planting, or, as Kelley Farm did in 2011, stopped planting it altogether.

But this year, the family couldn’t abide not planting the crop that has sustained the farm since 1885.

They planted two acres this summer, and harvested a good looking crop in August. Having the help of all those family members was key, Kelley said, since they can no longer afford to hire the dozens of seasonal laborers like they did when they raised 25 acres and it was more profitable.

Growing tobacco can be very lucrative, but it is very risky.

“We have land that grows fine quality tobacco,” said Kelley, who tends fields on Stockbridge Road. “And tobacco produces the most income per acre of any crop.”

“If you can get a buyer to buy it,” his wife, Catherine, chimed in. The two sat in the sun room of their home Thursday, with a view of the corn fields.

Unlike farmers who grow for their CSA customers or contract with companies who agree to buy their produce, tobacco farmers have no guarantee that they will be able to sell their crop at the end of the season. They borrow money to plant and raise it, and brokers who will eventually sell to tobacco companies stop by occasionally to check on the quality. But they won’t commit one way or the other until the leaves are dried and bundled in the fall.

“They say, ‘If it’s a good crop, I’ll buy it,’” Edward Kelley said.

Because tobacco is worth a lot, almost all who grow it have crop insurance subsidized by the federal government. If the crop is ruined or farmers can’t get market price for it, the insurance will pay them the difference. But the insurance isn’t cheap at about $600 per acre, Edward Kelley said.

In recent years it has also become harder to borrow the funds to start growing the crop, William Kelley, 43, said. “Farm Credit has said they’re not going to finance tobacco farms anymore because they’re too risky,” he said. Typically, farmers don’t get paid for their tobacco crop until December.

But while farms in the Valley may be cutting back on their acreage, many are still determined to carry on the legacy of the Hadley tobacco industry.

“They always thought Connecticut River Valley tobacco made the best cigars,” William Kelley said. “You just have to hope they’ll buy it.”

Edward Kelley’s grandfather, an Irishman named Patrick Kelley, bought the farm in 1885 and began raising 72 acres of tobacco. His son, John, eventually took over and raised tobacco, potatoes and dairy cows until his death in 1958.

After that, sons Edward Kelley and John Kelley Jr. ran the farm with the same crops until 1988. That’s when the brothers decided to split their operation, with Edward Kelley running the cropping operation and John Kelley Jr. taking over the dairy farming business.

Now, Edward and Catherine Kelley manage the farm with their two sons, William and Daniel Kelley. William Kelley and his wife, Sara, run a farm stand that sells vegetables on Roosevelt Street.

The challenges

For four or five years in a row in the 1990s, the Kelley farm and other tobacco farmers lost entire whole crops to blue mold and other afflictions. They had crop insurance which paid them for their lost crop, but they still took a financial hit.

They were raising between 25 and 35 acres each year, but in 2008, they started to have more trouble selling their tobacco. “Nobody wanted to buy it,” William Kelley said.

Edward Kelley thinks the decline in smoking because of the health effects contributed to the decline, but the nationwide recession was a big factor. “Premium cigars went down when the economy went down,” he said.

The lack of interest from brokers coupled with a few bad crops caused the family to decide in 2011 not to raise the crop anymore. They focused more on vegetables, but it just didn’t feel right.

“You get accustomed to something; you’ve done it all your life,” Edward Kelley said. “We thought we’d give a few acres a try this year.”

Edward Kelley said he doesn’t know why, but buyers now seem more interested in buying a few acres instead of 20 or 30, he said. Two of the Kelleys’ daughters and their husbands also grew a few acres of tobacco on their farms elsewhere in Hadley.

So the family got together in August and spent about three or four days on each of the three farms, chopping down the tobacco stalks and taking them to the tobacco barns to hang and dry for two months.

“You really have fun out there,” Catherine Kelley said. “Harvesting tobacco is hard work and hot days, but everyone loves it because when you’re done, the fields are empty and you can see the results of your labor.”

If the crop dries well and they can sell it at market price this fall, Kelley Farm might have tobacco in the fields again next year.

“It feels nice to do it again,” Edward Kelley said. “Now, we’re just wishing for good, dry air.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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