The Smoke Clears

Ex-Tobacco Farmers Kick the Habit and Go Organic

From the outside, this looks like any other barn tucked into a sleepy mountain hollow of Stickleyville, Virginia in the Appalachians. Rows of tobacco plants skewered on wooden poles hang like dry-cleaning from the rafters while all around the hillsides explode with autumn colors, which mirror the tints of lemon, orange and mahogany in the cured tobacco.

Life-long Appalachian tobacco farmer Martin Miles now grows organic peppers.
Frank Zeller

But inside this barn a revolution is brewing. Among the unlikely pioneers is Sam Askins, a 54-year-old farmer, whose family has been raising tobacco in nearby Russell County since 1786. "Growing "bacco is a bad habit," Askins says with a chuckle as he adjusts his bright orange hunting cap. "So I quit."

At a time of year when generations of local farmers usually gathered in barns to bundle their cured tobacco for auction, Askins was working to rescue the last of his organic bell pepper crop from the coming frost. He has brought 61 boxes of peppers to this barn, part of which was recently converted to a packing and sorting facility for organic vegetables. The peppers are bound for an Atlanta branch of Whole Foods Market.

"I used to get sicker than a dog with fever, burning skin, and nausea if I wasn’t real careful with the chemicals I sprayed on tobacco," says Askins, as he goes on to describe the symptoms of nicotine poisoning from handling the ripe tobacco plant. The other growers gathered here, all at least third-generation tobacco farmers who have started raising organic veggies, nod in agreement. "You don’t hear bullfrogs or toads anymore, because we’ve poisoned the streams and creeks with our chemicals," Askins speculates.

The shift underway in this small southwest corner of a state world-renowned for its flavorful tobacco is representative of a trend throughout the nation, as farmers, beset by falling prices or eroding markets, switch to organic to protect their livelihood. Askins will receive $26 per 25-pound box of his organic bell peppers compared with $8 for a box of nonorganic peppers.

American sales of organic produce have jumped from $750,000 in 1990 to more than $10 billion in 2002, according to industry estimates. The number of certified organic acres in the United States quadrupled between 1992 and 2001, according to the Department of Agriculture, although this land still accounts for just half a percent of all American cropland.

Like the national trends, the growth curve in this part of Appalachia, which spans Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, is steep, but still relatively small. Nearly three dozen growers have converted in Virginia, and another two dozen have converted in North Carolina, managing nearly 500 acres in total—more than four times the area just two years ago, but still a fraction of land in the tobacco belt.

"The financial return is very attractive," says John Mullins, 35, part owner of the converted barn. Mullins has been around tobacco since he was a kid, but decided to raise Prudens Purple tomatoes, yellow Yukon potatoes, and half a dozen other heirloom vegetables organically several years ago. Mullins says that he netted about $2,500 from his best acre of tobacco this past season, while he cleared roughly $20,000 from a nearby acre of grape tomatoes. "Growing tobacco is like riding a dead horse," he says.

A government-administered quota system that stabilized the price of tobacco and offered farmers a level of financial security unprecedented in agriculture has collapsed in recent years as American cigarette makers use more and more cheap imported tobacco from major exporters such as Turkey, Brazil and Zimbabwe. Today, an estimated half of the tobacco in a cigarette sold in the United States is foreign grown, according to Department of Agriculture statistics.

Despite this shrinking domestic market, farmers in the Appalachians remain bound to tobacco by history and habit. In 1995, when the nonprofit group Appalachian Sustainable Development in nearby Abigdon, Virginia first began helping tobacco growers raise and market organic vegetables, "a few back-to-the-landers, some hippies and one Amish family quickly got on board," according to farmer and the group’s director Anthony Flaccavento. After that, the number of converts seemed to hit a wall.

Then, in 1999, the group started to market its produce through a local supermarket chain, under the Appalachian Harvest label, an organic and regional designation intended to capitalize on the strong cultural identity of the area. "Farmers and their spouses began seeing the label when they shopped," giving the work some legitimacy and piquing the interest of the "old boys" network of tobacco growers, according to Flaccavento.

Since then, the number of participating farmers jumped to 25 in 2001 and then to 40 by the end of 2002. Appalachian Harvest produce now appears in stores and restaurants throughout Virginia, as well as North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and as far north as Philadelphia. (The group’s work—and the new packing shed—is partly underwritten by money from the 1998 landmark settlement between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, which set aside funding for each state to help farmers convert to other crops or businesses.)

Change can seem slow, particularly when the average tobacco farmer in this area is in his or her 60s. But, Warren LaForce, 29, who farms 15 acres with his father in nearby Dungannon, Virginia, suggests the emergence of some new local traditions. LaForce recently attended a conference on sustainable agriculture in Durham, North Carolina. He returned brimming over with ideas for his own farm, including mobile greenhouses, use of mushroom compost, and production of organic seedlings to supply local growers.

At the conference, LaForce noted that the most seasoned organic growers only had 10 to 15 years of experience, compared with local farmers with 50 years of tobacco growing experience. "When I’m my dad’s age," he says, "I want to be the guru of organic vegetables." LaForce has grown organic cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, peppers and other vegetables for Appalachian Harvest for several years, and, as his expertise grows, he shifts more and more of his family’s land permanently into organic production. "I got into organic for the money, but I’m staying with it, because it’s the right thing to do," he says.