Tobacco Worm Mystery

Where have all the tobacco worms gone? We need some answers to this mystery. I guess that question could use a little explanation.

As the end of August nears and a new school year approaches, my thoughts wander back to the days when tobacco was king in this area. As I drove by the cornfield west of the farm buildings, I remembered the days when it was covered with large tobacco plants waiting to be harvested, instead of corn. Those days are now but a memory for all the old tobacco farmers around Vernon County. This used to be one of the largest tobacco producing counties in Wisconsin. Last year saw the end of those days when only a few acres were grown. This year there are no tobacco fields waiting to be harvested.

By late August, if the growing season had been a good one, plants with large green leaves, without any tears or holes, stood waiting to be cut down, piled, speared, and hauled to the tobacco shed where it would be hung for curing.

I mentioned leaves without tears or holes. If there had been windstorms or hail, the leaves could become torn, shredded, or full of holes. Depending on the severity of the storm, it could quickly destroy a tobacco crop and render all that hard work for naught. It would have to be disked down because no tobacco buyer would want it. That could spell financial disaster because tobacco was the cash crop that paid the taxes and many other expenses. It also paid off the mortgages on many farms.

Another enemy of tobacco was the tobacco worm. It was a large, dark green, nasty-looking worm with a horn protruding from the back end. Some places referred to them as tobacco hornworms. They could grow up to four inches in length and be as thick as your thumb, especially if they’d been feasting away on your tobacco leaves. They could cost a farmer hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in lost revenue if they weren’t controlled.

We would watch for worms as we topped tobacco. Topping is where we broke off the smaller, top portion of each plant so the main leaves would get bigger and you’d have a better crop. You could easily tell when a plant had been chewed on by a tobacco worm. When we came across the signs of destruction we checked the leaves and the culprit was usually still there, inflicted with a serious case of the munchies. If there was no worm, you could usually find him on a neighboring plant.

This is the point where things got interesting. If you didn’t like picking up a squishy, squirming, green worm, you could try knocking it off the leaf and then stomping on it. But they could be hard to dislodge as they clung to the leaf with all their little feet. My preferred method of disposing of them was to grab them around the middle of their body and pull them off the leaf. Then as they struggled back and forth between my fingers, I’d throw them down on the ground as hard as I could. They would explode in a sea of green tobacco juice. We usually kept score to see who ended up with the most tobacco worm splats.

If you did a good job of disposing of them while topping, it saved a lot of tobacco. Some years the worms were worse than others and Dad would have us walk through the tobacco looking for them. When you raised ten to twelve acres, that’s a lot of looking. As an incentive he gave us a penny for every worm we found. We carried a glass mason jar to drop the worms into. When the jars were full we’d empty them out so Dad could count them. Then we scooped them back in and filled the jars with water. I know it sounds cruel, but this was all a part of life on the farm. You needed to destroy the insects and worms that could ruin a crop and cause financial disaster for farmers.

Sometimes we’d have a hundred worms or more in our jars. I know a penny doesn’t sound like much now, but back then you could buy a lot of ice cream cones at five cents for a single dip and ten cents for a double dip cone. A dollar was a lot of money to us.

Now, back to the mystery. I think we can all agree that fields filled with tobacco plants have gone the way of Passenger Pigeons, at least in most parts of Wisconsin. Other crops now grow in those fields that were home to thousands of tobacco worms. We tried to kill them all, but it never worked. Every year they were back in force. Now that their main food source has disappeared, have tobacco worms disappeared too? I haven’t seen one in many years. Maybe they all packed their bags and headed south where tobacco is still grown. It’s just like people moving on or starving when all the jobs dry up in an area. Or, maybe tobacco worms have acquired a taste for other plants for dinner. But if that’s the case, we can no longer refer to them as tobacco worms.

Yup, it’s quite a mystery to ponder on a late summer afternoon.

© Copyright: Sept. 03, 2009 Westbytimes

One response to “Tobacco Worm Mystery

  1. I have some Tobacco Hornworms here in northeast Texas.
    I planted 40 tobacco plants to see if they would grow and they did. I found green tobacco worms on some of them in mid-september. The same hornworms were eating my tomato plants last year.

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