Tobacco Farmers Must Weigh What Matters Most


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 day.

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 to try.

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.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1999 The Progressive Populist