Tobacco Farmers Must Weigh What Matters Most
By RALPH DURHAM
The announcement that the USDA is cutting flue-cured tobacco allotments
by 18% for 1999, on the heels of a 17% cut in 1998 should send several clear
signals to tobacco farmers. Most importantly, denial is simply no longer
an option. The demise of tobacco farming as it has been done in recent years
is imminent. It is well past time to recognize that there is no cavalry
coming over the hill, at least not to preserve the status quo.
When Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar last year suggested
the possibility of a USDA buyout for allotment holders, the proposal was
greeted with scorn by North Carolina Senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth,
and Rep. Bob Etheridge. All denounced the deal, or any proposed settlement
that would phase out allotments. Recall that the proposal, which seems so
absurdly generous now, would have bought tobacco allotments for $8 per pound,
or an average of a little over $17,000 per acre of tobacco in production.
For the "average" allotment holder of 13 acres, this would have
come to well over $200,000 with which to start down a new path.
The alternative for the USDA seems to be, if they don't want a buyout phase
'em out by simply reducing the quota. Except for a last-minute deal between
the Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation, which buys leaf that
goes unsold at auction to resell later, and the tobacco companies to sell
off last year's surplus at a steep discount the quota reduction would have
been closer to 30%. With prices dropping and imported tobacco displacing
domestic production, the writing on the wall couldn't be clearer.
Yet amid the howls of despair among the farming community, the habit of
clinging to old solutions and waiting for yesterday's saviors persists.
Talking to tobacco farmers about the future, one senses a grim determination
to cling tightly to the rails of a slow-sinking ship. Any suggestion that
there are alternative crops, or alternative ways to market them is greeted
with derision and hostility. "What other crops," asked one farmer
from Roanoke Rapids recently while standing in the parking lot at a farm
equipment show in Wilson, North Carolina, heart of tobacco country, "can
a man plant to make the kind of money he can on tobacco?"
He certainly has a point, if the search is confined to conventional row
crops harvested by machine or cheap imported labor. The small-acreage farmer
simply cannot make sweet potatoes, or cotton, or peanuts, or any other field-grown
row crop that is conventionally grown on mega-farms worth his while. He
can't compete with the big boys playing their game with their commodities
by their rules. The prices won't sustain him. But that is a topic for another
The question for tobacco farmers who wish to preserve their way of life
is this: What is most important, staying in farming or staying in tobacco?
If the answer is staying with tobacco, then the path into the dustbin of
history is clear. If the answer is staying on the land, practicing husbandry,
and recapturing the skills of farming, then there is a way, for those willing
The problem is that a lifetime of tobacco farming has bred--and I intentionally
use the analogy so often aimed at welfare recipients--a culture of dependency.
I know this enrages tobacco farmers, who work very hard, but the fact is,
the very unique profitability of tobacco is not the result of hard work,
but of a protected market. As that protection collapses, no amount of hard
work can make up the difference.
By way of comparison, look at the organic farming movement. The fastest-growing
sector of domestic agriculture, with high per-acre profits and zero government
support. In fact, if anything, organic producers have had to compete against
government-subsidized large producers that keep commodity prices artificially
low. Yet, with hard work, good husbandry and marketing ingenuity--the virtues
that originally built up American agriculture--an economically viable alternative
to corporate dependence has arisen. No one gets rich, but the choice of
staying on the land and in farming is there for those who want it.
Tobacco farmers, especially older ones, are generally skeptical about a
shift into high-value vegetables or other low-input production. "If
I plant 10 acres of chili peppers and do good with them, next year my neighbor
is gonna plant a hundred acres, and where is my market then?" asks
my friend at the equipment show. His concern is real, for his experience
with tobacco has taught him that when cheap products flood the market good
prices are in peril. His recognition of an unprotected market is instinctive.
His interest in alternatives seems confined to other forms of industrialized
corporate dependence, like contract chicken or hog production. Yet these
arrangements proletarianize the farmer on his own land, and reduce him to
a deeply indebted employee, following company guidelines and instructions
to the letter like a factory worker. Notwithstanding the environmental problems
associated with factory farming, is this really the life the farmer covets?
Does it even slightly resemble the pastoral existence he grew up with? Is
the money that good?
For tobacco farmers the bell tolls, and it is time to look for options and
grab them fast. The big allotment holders and absentee corporate farmers
will be okay, as they always are. But the small-acreage producer, looking
to preserve a way of life, is going to have to turn to ways of doing things
that Successful Farming doesn't endorse.
Ralph Durham writes from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while he works
on a dissertation on agricultural political economy.
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