Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography and Anthropology

First Advisor

William V. Davidson

Second Advisor

Stanley F. Stevens


This study analyzes the transformation of burley tobacco farming underway in the late twentieth century in light of social, political, and economic forces that make tobacco a contested crop. It focuses on one county in southern Appalachia, Madison County, North Carolina, where tobacco has been a cash crop for over a hundred years. A synthesis of the theoretical and methodological approaches of cultural ecology and structuration is proposed as a means of exploring the components of agricultural change within Appalachia at a continuum of scales from the local to the national, while contextualizing farming within its environmental and social settings. The study traces the development of Madison County's farm system from the late eighteenth century to the close of the twentieth century, highlighting the development and transition between two distinct eras of commercial tobacco production. For the contemporary agricultural scene, it details the mix of production systems, including burley tobacco, beef cattle and hay, that farmers combine in flexible and frequently changing livelihood strategies. While tobacco is central to both the agricultural economy and to cultural identity, off-farm work and forest resources such as timber and ginseng are important components of the farm economy. Farmers routinely incorporate forest resources from private and public lands into their livelihood strategies. Processes of negotiation are analyzed through which individuals and community groups mediate the institutionalized mechanisms of resource allocation and control framed by the U.S. Forest Service. Agricultural change arises from a complex interplay of technological change, farmer adaptation and innovation, institutional forces, and sociocultural trends that reflect Appalachia's connections to distant places. The role of the federal tobacco program in structuring the local farm system is illustrated by the effects of changes in program formulation on land use and production practices. Farmers have responded to program uncertainty and a tight labor market in a variety of ways, including altering the traditional form of curing structures, adopting hydroponic seedling production, and hiring Mexican migrant laborers during harvest. The goal throughout the study is to contribute to a more fully articulated understanding of the contemporary Appalachian experience and the mechanisms of agricultural change.