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Tobacco cutters compete to find the cream of the crop

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GARRARD COUNTY (WDKY)-- It's harvest season for Kentucky's tobacco farmers, but each year it's getting more difficult for them to find people to help bring in the crop.

For 37 years, Garrard county has celebrated tobacco cutters with a contest to find the fastest hired hands in the land.

There's is an art and a rhythm to this back-breaking work. It's not all about speed. Contestants have to put six stalks to a stick.. and they lose points if the stalks split or a stick falls over.

It's estimated there are about 8,000 tobacco farms left in Kentucky. That's down two-thirds from 20 years ago. As the farms dwindle, so does the number of people who are proficient at this kind of work.

"Tobacco's going to go the wrong way, I believe on that account... because the labor's hard to find," said past contest winner James Edgington.

Health concerns and smoking bans are the biggest reasons for the decline, but there's no doubt about, finding good help is also a tough row to hoe.

Of the 12 people in this year's contest, ten were migrant workers from Mexico. Farmers don't know what they'd do without them.

But in recent years, a Kentuckian has always been the guy to beat. Alvin Stamper of Laurel County had chopped through the competition 13 of the past 15 years. That put him in a tie for most wins ever. He averages 13 sticks every three minutes.

"It's the only thing I'm good at," Stamper said, laughing.

He said if he broke the record this year, he will retire.

"My back's about had it."

There is pride in taking home the trophy and 500 dollars on the line.

"The money was nothing to me when I got it," said Edgington. "The first 18 years I wanted to win it and I finally did in 2000."

A crowd at the edge of the patch this year was not surprised when the first to emerge was once again Stamper. He claimed that record-breaking 14th win, as the spectators applauded. They'll have to wait until next year to see if he's really retired from the competition.

Garrard County has found a way to turn farmwork into a spectator sport, celebrating a dying art and the cream of the crop.
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