Each spring, the agriculture students at the public high school here lay out long, straight rows of baby burley tobacco plants that crest a little ridge outside this Bluegrass Country town and disappear from view. A couple of hours to the north, in the Appalachian river town of West Union, Ohio, local students wait all summer to challenge their teacher to tobacco-harvesting races. The teenage boys at West Union's vocational high school take off their shirts and tie red bandannas to their foreheads, but they seldom win.
Even as health concerns about youth smoking are spurring increased efforts to separate teenagers from tobacco, the high schools in Mount Sterling and West Union and dozens of others like them -- as well as a few middle and elementary schools -- have remained in the tobacco business. The schools plant, grow and market tobacco like any other small farmer. In many cases the crop-growing chores are handled by students -- many of whom are too young to legally buy cigarettes -- as part of their course work.
"We used this for a fundraiser for banquets and trips, instead of fundraisers like bake sales," said Terry Harvey, the agriculture teacher at Adair County High School, which grows tobacco in central Kentucky.
The teachers and school administrators involved in tobacco production tend to see little problem with the practice, saying their rural culture is steeped in tobacco and there is nothing wrong with teaching the latest cultivating techniques to students who grew up on farms and may inherit them someday. But health advocates have begun to voice concerns that schools operating tobacco farms and selling their crop to cigarette companies are undercutting their own anti-smoking health education programs.
"They're getting this mixed message," said Menisa Marshall, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Kentucky. "We're saying it's bad for your health -- it's bad for everybody's health -- but don't worry about growing it."
In 2003, 41 school districts in five states -- Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia -- owned tobacco quotas and grew 49,644 pounds of tobacco, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The vast majority of school tobacco farms are in Kentucky -- the nation's No. 2 tobacco-producing state, which also has the highest rate of high school and middle school students who smoke. The USDA lists 29 Kentucky school districts with federally regulated quotas that give them the right to grow fixed amounts of tobacco. A recent University of Kentucky study said 39 schools -- including an elementary school and eight schools with grades from kindergarten to eighth -- have tobacco quotas.
High school tobacco farms have been around for decades. And the rights to grow tobacco were often acquired in a haphazard manner. Most farmland in tobacco-growing states comes with automatic tobacco quotas. Sometimes districts bought property for school expansions and ended up with tobacco quotas as well.
The kids in Damascus, a small town deep in Southwest Virginia, a few miles from the Tennessee border, have been growing tobacco since at least the 1960s, when the Washington County School District bought land for Holston High School. Holston and another Washington County school, Abingdon High, are the only high schools in Virginia that grow tobacco, the USDA said. They produced more than 4,900 pounds last year. But recently county and school administrators have started considering alternative crops because of a decline in the region's tobacco industry and because of concerns about the propriety of school tobacco farms.
"There have been some questions, especially with tobacco [smoking] not being allowed on school property," said Dennis Hill, the principal of Damascus High.
Tobacco quotas, such as the one held by the Washington County school system, can be sold or leased. Marshall of the Kentucky Lung Association would prefer that schools sell their quotas rather than operate tobacco farms. Joe Myers, the agriculture instructor at Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling, grew up in a tobacco-raising family but sold the quota on his private farm because he grew weary of the highly labor-intensive crop and was veering toward a focus on cattle.
But his school has shown no similar inclination. Montgomery County High School used a donation bequeathed by a wealthy farmer to buy 174 acres of gently rolling farmland in 1997. The land came with a tobacco quota, and Myers's classes planted the maximum allowed by law: three acres, vastly increasing the involvement in tobacco farming. Last year the little farm produced almost 6,000 pounds of tobacco, generating nearly $14,000 in revenue and making Montgomery the nation's biggest tobacco-producing high school, the USDA reported.
The acreage and revenue figures may seem small, but they are in keeping with the culture of tiny tobacco farms in the state, unlike the huge, mechanized farms commonly seen in the nation's biggest tobacco-producing state, North Carolina. Kentucky once had more individual tobacco farmers, many cultivating five acres or less, than all other states combined. It still leads the nation in the number of tobacco farms.
The growers around Mount Sterling, about 30 miles east of Lexington, talk about "tobacco paying for the farm." Because tobacco generates higher profits per acre than most other crops, and because many farmers cut labor costs by engaging the whole family in planting and harvesting, as little as one or two acres of tobacco can offset less robust profits from dozens of acres of other crops. And paying off the farm creates generational loyalties.
Leslie Linhous, who graduated this spring from Montgomery County High, remembered sitting in her diapers making mud pies in the shade of a wagon while her father planted tobacco. It took more than a few springs, but he finally let her help.
She thought of it as "graduating." Her little-girl legs were too short at first to get up onto the tractor-drawn tobacco-planting machine, known as a "setter," so her dad made her the "pigtail." She walked behind the tractor with an armful of tobacco plants, filling in the gaps on "Daddy's farm" whenever the grown-ups on the setter left too much space between plantings.
This spring, Linhous -- almost grown now, tall and pretty and 18 -- also pigtailed for her school. Her father came by to pick her up at the school tobacco farm recently, pausing to admire the growing crop and drawing deeply from an unfiltered Camel cigarette.
"Filters are bad for you," Gerald Linhous said.
His daughter does not smoke. But some research has shown a direct connection between working in tobacco farms and youth smoking, making the question of school tobacco farms all the more nettlesome. Children are more likely to smoke -- boys 10 times as likely, girls 51/2 times as likely -- if they work on tobacco farms and have a parent who smokes, a University of Kentucky study shows. Melody Noland, the researcher who conducted the study, recalled one mother packing a single cigarette in her third-grader's lunch every day. One of her survey forms asked students when they started smoking. The earliest date on the form was first grade. A boy raised his hand and asked: "What if you started in kindergarten?"
Linhous and her friends do not need a study to tell them about youth smoking. They can see it every Friday night. Cruising, that artifact of the 1950s, is still big in Mount Sterling. The regular route loops around a fast-food restaurant and ends in the parking lot of a cycle shop. There is always a cloud of cigarette smoke, Linhous said, hovering over one end of the lot.
Her friend Brittany Vice, 18, another nonsmoker who worked in the tobacco field at Montgomery County High, has a boyfriend with a habit of filling his car with cigarette smoke when they go out. She makes him roll down the windows and always says the same thing: "You're killing me."
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.