Up in Smoke?

Tobacco Growers Look Elsewhere to Save the Family Farm

Dorothy Robertson has a friend who says “the best fertilizer in the world is the shadow of the farmer.” But the shadow falling over Robertson's farm, and those of 124,000 other tobacco farmers in the U.S., is that of Big Tobacco, and it's certainly not helping them grow.

Between 1954 and 1992, the number of U.S. farms that grew tobacco dropped 75 percent, while foreign acreage planted in that crop continued to escalate, making the U.S. the leading worldwide importer of tobacco. Lower overhead costs and cheaper labor give developing countries a great deal of appeal to corporations like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, which both have huge investments overseas.

In the late 1990s, tobacco is out of political favor, and frowned on by environmentalists and health advocates as well. This past year, manufacturers increased wholesale cigarette prices five times, most recently by 45 cents a pack. Add restrictions on advertising and federal excise taxes and the result is lower tobacco consumption. Greater efficiency allows the use of cheaper tobacco in cigarette production—also not very promising for a country that sells its tobacco on a reputation of high quality.

Photo P. Degginger/H. Armstrong Roberts

Up until now, the 60-year-old tobacco program has set the quotas and provided price-support for growers, but The National Commission on Small Farms warns that since the high-profile settlement with insurance companies, bills have been introduced in Congress to end those subsidies. Faced with a declining market and unstable economic future, it seems one thing that may very well be tilled into obscurity is the family tobacco farm.

No one who cares about the next generation's lungs should mourn the loss of acreage devoted to cigarette production, but the plight of thousands of displaced farmers is another matter. “Farmers have been told for 30 to 40 years to specialize,” says Kentucky tobacco farmer Steve Smith. “Get rid of your dairies, get rid of your little gardens, get rid of your orchards. Anything that's small or minor, get rid of it and turn your farm into a tobacco factory.” That advice hasn't worked for Smith, or for countless other tobacco farmers with large volumes but low income. They've became caught in a cost-price freeze, as overhead and labor continues to soar while the price of tobacco remains about the same.

Back when Smith bought his grandparents' farm, it was “get big or get out.” In 1990, he decided to get out, and began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partnership, in which urban families provide upfront cash to local farmers in exchange for future crops. Smith says his existing farm technology transferred successfully from rows of tobacco to rows of vegetables, and organic methods eliminated much of the overhead. Because customers pay for a year's worth of food in advance, the annual trips to borrow money from the bank came to a halt as well. “It was such a better world that I had found,” Smith says.

For many in Kentucky's tobacco country, supplementing income with alternative crops has become more a necessity than a pastime. Farmer Buddy Switzer is experimenting with all-natural chickens. Ken Mattingly runs a dairy, adding value to his milk by making cheese on the farm. Tom and Dorothy Robertson run an as-you-pick strawberry patch that draws people from 100 miles away. Unfortunately, niche markets can't solve everyone's problems. As more farmers turn to a particular crop, it is no longer a niche.

Robertson, along with the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) in Kentucky, has begun to research alternative fibers, for which there is a growing market. Kenaf, a drought-tolerant, warm-weather crop, can be used for paper, rope, rugs, sacks, even clothing. Industrial hemp fiber also has broad product potential, and neither crop requires significant pesticides or herbicides. Unfortunately, industrial hemp is a boon only to foreign farmers; it's illegal to grow in the U.S.

Farmers also have the option of converting from chemically-intensive tobacco to organic. Willing buyers exist, such as the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company in New Mexico, but with a three-year resting period before the USDA will certify soils pesticide-free, few growers have explored its possibilities.

A very versatile crop, tobacco leaves can be used to create ethanol or biomethane, useful alternative energy fuels. Biomass tobacco, a minimal-nicotine crop that is converted to fuel, not smoked, can thrive in poor soil and a wide range of environments, is not labor-intensive and also requires minimal chemical treatment. Tobacco can also become animal feed.

CFA's Tribby Vice points out, however, that farmers “don't always have time to work on other opportunities. It takes all of your time just to survive.” This reality has prompted the public health industry to join in a long-term initiative, not focused on banning tobacco but on reducing its use, and providing farmers with options. Scott Ballin, senior policy consultant for The National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, says, “You can't just tell farmers to go grow something else. It doesn't work that way.”

Despite a rising tide of alternatives, tobacco remains extremely profitable. In 1995, it was the seventh largest cash crop in the U.S., worth more than $4,000 an acre. Many farmers can't afford a drop in their income by to try something different, and the markets of other crops are volatile in comparison. Mattingly says that without help, most farmers are “going to keep doing what they know until it's not there anymore. And then it'll be almost impossible [to change] because they won't have the capital to do it.”

As family tobacco farms give way, their likely replacement is factory farming and further relocation overseas, where environmental and labor regulations are lax. Dorothy Robertson shudders at the thought. Tobacco is already notorious as an environmentally-unfriendly crop. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that at least 25.6 million pounds of pesticides are used on tobacco each year. It also rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients, requiring heavy chemical fertilization, and in many countries, forests are clear-cut to fuel the curing houses.

Today, 61 percent of tobacco farmers supplement their incomes with work off their farms. But according to Smith, “We have not burnt our bridges behind us. We're fairly well-equipped to diversify now and save ourselves. We can do this. But it's going to take a lot of work.”