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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tobacco Farmers

Air Date: Week of

It was the cash crop of choice in many parts of the south. But with tobacco facing an uncertain future, reporter Leda Hartman checks in with some tobacco farmers in North Carolina to see how they’re faring.


TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Over the last few years, tobacco has become a pariah crop and, some might say, a dying one. First came a national class action law suit against the nation's big cigarette makers. Next came cuts in the amount of tobacco that the federal government allows to be grown. And this year, for the first time, most tobacco will be grown on contract with individual companies instead of being sold at open auction.

All these changes have made for an uncertain future for tobacco farmers. Leda Hartman reports from the nation's leading tobacco producing state, North Carolina.

HARTMAN: Billy Carter eases his pick-up along a back road outside the tiny central North Carolina town of Eagle Springs. He's heading for a newly ploughed field that he'll plant with little tobacco seedlings from his greenhouse. Not long ago, someone else farmed this field.

CARTER: I'm actually growing tobacco that, four years ago, five different individuals were growing. One of those retired, one of them passed away, and two of them, just their quotas were cut to the point where it was more viable for them to lease their quota to me and work public work.

HARTMAN: That's been the trend in tobacco farming over the last few years. There are fewer farmers, and those that are left have bigger operations than ever before. Carter has chosen to stay in tobacco because for now, despite the uncertainties, no other crop he raises brings in the same amount of money. Tobacco compromises less than a third of his acreage, but it's 80% of his income.

CARTER: I basically know, short of a national disaster, what I will make on an acre of tobacco in a year, and what I make on an acre of tomatoes, I never have any idea, and we've grown them for a total of over 20 years.

HARTMAN: Though other farmers have opted out of tobacco, they haven't necessarily abandoned farming. One group that's tried to help tobacco farmers diversify is the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which supports sustainable agriculture in rural communities. Three years ago, the foundation started a pilot program to help families find other lucrative commodities to grow--everything from goat meat to pick your own grapes. Executive Director Betty Bailey says this strategy is better than forcing tobacco farmers off the land.

BAILEY: All those human skills, all those farm skills, that are in place, let's use those, let's not just toss those out and retrain everybody. That's something that's very valuable.

HARTMAN: In the small town of Anger, Ronnie Fish eases a load of fescue grass onto the back of a landscaping truck.

FISH: Appreciate it. Haul it in. This is what I like, they give me a check.

HARTMAN: Fish grew tobacco in this very same field until 1998, when the federal cut in allotments made him decide to quit.

FISH: For a three year period, they cut a basic allotment in half, just like if you was working for somebody and they cut your pay every year, would you keep working there? But farmers are supposed to take that on the chin and keep on going.

HARTMAN: These days, Fish raises sod for the new sub-divisions and office parks springing up around North Carolina's Research Triangle Park area, just up the road to the north.

FISH: People buying these houses, that's their little world, is around their house and yard. And they'll spend whatever it takes to get it looking like they want.

HARTMAN: Fish financed his new venture by selling off all his tobacco equipment and getting some seed money from the Rural Advancement Foundation. Even so, he's had to go into debt--no small thing for a man in his forties with two kids to put through college. Still, Fish says, he considers himself lucky.

FISH: No, I don't miss tobacco at all.

HARTMAN: Eighty-six-year-old Elizabeth Royal doesn't miss tobacco either. Royal runs a roadside produce stand in Whiteville, a county seat in the southeastern part of North Carolina, the heart of tobacco country.

ROYAL: Mustard and turnips and kale and garden peas, that's what we got back there. We had green onions and all those things.

HARTMAN: Royal remembers what it was like to raise tobacco before the federal government established price supports for the crop. That was back in the late 1940s.

ROYAL: At that time, you just didn't know whether you were going to make a sale or not, and sometimes you made it and sometimes you didn't. It was just a bad thing, no money in it. My dad depended on his strawberries at the time.

HARTMAN: Royal says that history is repeating itself, with tobacco in decline these days, and strawberries the better money-maker once more. Just this past year, she and her family sold the tobacco allotments they inherited from her father.

ROYAL: That's just the way times are. I didn't feel bad about it or nothing.

HARTMAN: It wasn't the federal cut in allotments that forced Royal and her family out of tobacco. It was the new system of growing and selling the leaf, called contracting. Under it, a farmer grows a set amount of tobacco for an individual company, according to a set price, rather than selling it the traditional way - at open auction. This year, all five of the nation's big cigarette makers are buying much of their leaf on contract, and 80% of the nation's tobacco farmers are working for them. That could mean the demise of the auction system, and that, contracting critics say, will hurt farmers in the long run.

Mac Dunkley is managing director for the Bright Belt Warehouse Association, which coordinates the auction system in the southeast.

DUNKLEY: Once that switch is made and all the farmers switch to contract, and there is no competition to keep those contracts high and lucrative for the farmer, the price will come down. The companies will then be in control of what is being paid, rather than the farmer being in control, when he has an option.

HARTMAN: And that's exactly what Elizabeth Royal's son-in-law, Wade Gore, is afraid of. Gore, who's in his early seventies, predicts that contracting will eventually make things as bad for farmers as they were before the government price supports came in.

GORE: We weren't under contract, but all we'd do, we'd take it to the warehouse and lay it down there, and whatever the company's offered us, that's what we had to take. It amounts to the same thing. I did it when I was young, but I'm not going back to that.

HARTMAN: And there was one more reason Gore decided to reject the contract system: in order to be eligible for a contract from a big tobacco company, farmers must pay to convert their curing barns to a new method, developed by R.J. Reynolds. The process is thought to make the tobacco slightly less carcinogenic. At his age, Gore says, he wasn't about to take on that kind of investment.

And he wouldn't let any of his kids do it, either. All five of them wanted to go into farming, but he didn't allow it. He sent all of them through college, but he wouldn't pay to set any of them up on a farm. Gore told them something he hated having to say.

GORE: There's one way, one word, I know to describe farming: Dead.

HARTMAN: Still, even though he's retired, Gore hasn't gotten out of farming completely. He dabbles in strawberries, and has helped set up a local farmer's market that provides a modest outlet for growers like him, who are moving away from tobacco. But the transition isn't easy, and, in some cases, it's not even possible. Unlike Wade Gore, some farmers have sunk too much money into their tobacco operations to be able to quit. Others lack the expertise to grow new crops. And some are reluctant to give up a way of life their families have embraced for generations.

Back in Eagle Springs, tobacco farmer Billy Carter says the biggest challenge to diversifying is to find crops that can bring in the same income as tobacco. Despite everything, Cater says, the golden leaf is still more golden than most any other croup around.

CARTER: It's what's really difficult for people to understand, because they think that North Carolina farmers are just hardheaded. Tobacco's a traditional thing. They just don't want to quit it. They're not willing to try other things. But you take all of the things that have been opportunities to diversify over the years, and it's all been funded with the profits off tobacco.

HARTMAN: Carter says he realizes some anti-smoking advocates would be glad to see him, and all his fellow tobacco farmers, go out of business. He says he's not offended by that point of view, because in the free-market system, there are no guarantees that all farmers get to stay on their farms.

CARTER: But people do, in fact, enjoy open spaces, not being developed, that's not being put to golf courses, or mobile homes, or sub-divisions or whatever. And one of the reasons why North Carolina has remained, in particular, the real economic, agriculture driven engine that it is, is because it's had tobacco to fall back on and keep people on the farm.

HARTMAN: Meanwhile Carter and the other tobacco farmers who have survived thus far face the year's season with a healthy dose of realism. Carter says that in tobacco, long term used to mean ten years out. Now, he says, it's next season.

For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman reporting.



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