Another way to pay the bills. North Carolina farmers are tied to tobacco - but some break free

WHEN Gerald Floyd went into farming, he followed the tradition of his father, his grandfathers, and most of his neighbors in this small farming community. He planted tobacco. But a few years ago, Mr. Floyd struck out on his own. He opened a small seafood market, and then he opened a seafood restaurant next door. Last year he began growing vegetables to use in the restaurant. Now he is looking for a broker to contract to sell more vegetables.

``The way I've always been, I like a challenge,'' says the rural entrepreneur, whose sons, Gerald Jr. and Ike, work with him on the farm. With vegetables, he says, ``there's a challenge every day.''

State agricultural agents here are quietly urging more farmers to be like Floyd. Tobacco is still the most profitable crop in North Carolina, where roughly a third of the US tobacco crop is grown.

But the well-publicized health effects of smoking are chipping away at the nation's tobacco market. Americans consume 25 percent less tobacco than they did 15 years ago, and government opposition to cigarette smoking is increasing. So is competition from foreign growers.

For the first time this year North Carolina's State Goals and Policy Board concluded that, over the long term, for tobacco farmers ``the choice is, as it were, between death by starvation or death by hanging.'' The board recommended that farmers begin to grow alternative crops such as fruits and vegetables.

That makes sense to innovative farmers like Floyd. But to those long accustomed to the stable, subsidized, and structured life of tobacco farming, a switch to free-market commodities is a leap into the unknown.

Since the 1800s, tobacco has been ``the crop that pays the bills'' for small farmers in this state, where two-thirds of all farms are less than 100 acres. Although tobacco is no longer the state's largest farm commodity (poultry became No. 1 in 1984), about half of North Carolina's farmers - some 35,000 - still grow it. Many have depended on the crop all of their lives.

Lennie and Katie Newton, who have a 62-acre tobacco farm in Rougemont, N.C., both grew up on tobacco farms. Except for a little winter wheat that never seems to amount to much, they have never grown anything else.

Their seven children have all worked in the fields from the time they were old enough to hold a hoe. Six days a week, from August until the middle of September, Jean, 18, Daniel, 14, Louis, 12, and half a dozen teen-agers hired from the area crouch between the hot and dusty rows, hand-harvesting the lower leaves from thousands of plants.

``You get out there about 6 in the morning, get done about 12, and you have to stay bent over most of the time,'' says Louis, standing between plants almost as high as his head. As sweat rolls steadily down his face he adds nonchalantly, ``If it ain't hot, it ain't too bad.''

``We kept them out of school twice last year for work,'' Mrs. Newton admits. ``But I know how important education is to a kid. I didn't have the opportunities I'm giving them to graduate.''

At the family's six ``buck'' barns, where the air smells of curing tobacco, the Newtons and Karen, 16, take the limp, yellow-green leaves and rack them on a stringer to cure. Then they take the pounds of cured leaf assigned to their farm by the federal government to a warehouse in Hillsborough. There it's graded by government graders and auctioned off for no less than the government support price.

The Newtons don't like to think that their crop is hurting anybody.

``The companies use so many chemicals to keep that tobacco, I'd come nearer thinking it's those chemicals,'' Mrs. Newton says.

Certainly, the government's extensive involvement in tobacco marketing has implicitly sanctioned the crop. Government programs have made the Newtons' stable life possible.

Habit, tradition, and ties to the familiar and predictable are no assets to a vegetable farmer. Growing vegetables isn't so tough. It's marketing them that can make a farmer feel like he has gotten into a different line of work altogether.

``It's not like taking a crop of tobacco to market, and buyers come in and buy it,'' Gerald Floyd warns, describing how at the vegetable auction in Faison, N.C., he watched the price of peppers drop from $10 to $2 a box in just a few weeks. ``And it can happen in a matter of a day,'' he says.

Vegetables get no price or marketing support from the government, and in North Carolina there is no growers' cooperative. Highly perishable crops flood local markets. The state has proposed setting up packing and processing services for produce, but so far none exist.

Farmers must choose between contracting with a broker or processor at a price the buyer sets (mastering the expensive and difficult process of icing the produce to ship) or trying to beat out the competition at roadside stands. Like much of modern farming, vegetable farming is as much about strategy and planning as it is about growing things.

The Floyds are farmers who get excited around new ideas. Driving between his fields and his restaurant in a 1977 Bronco jeep, Mr. Floyd contemplates dozens of ideas he has read or heard about for improving his fledgling vegetable operation.

Last year he astounded neighbors by spending $8,500 to cover four acres with drip irrigation line and black plastic after he saw such a system in Clinton, N.C. He has irrigated from a county fire hydrant, and built a 20-by-48-foot greenhouse for only $500 by using polyvinyl chloride water pipe for the frame.

These innovations made him the first farmer in his area to harvest squash, tomatoes, watermelons, and cantaloupes this year. Selling at produce stands, he and Gerald Jr. made $8,000 from four acres, paying back the investment in the irrigation system in one year. ``Plus, I learned a lot,'' says Floyd.

``Every idea he's had, we've made it work,'' says Gerald Jr., who lives in a trailer across the road from his father, grandmother, and two uncles.

``He comes up with a lot of good ideas,'' Mr. Floyd says of his son. ``He's always wanted to help me farm, since he was in high school.'' If he and Gerald divided the jobs of growing the vegetables and selling them, and if his younger son, Ike, would run the restaurant, he says, ``then we could really take off.''

But even creative farmers like the Floyds are expanding their vegetable operation slowly, unsure of the best way to break out of the local market. They believe that vegetables could be more profitable per acre than tobacco. But so far their 22 acres of tobacco is the largest source of net income, outproducing the vegetables, the restaurant, the seafood market, and 150 acres of corn and soybeans.

Some might wonder why they diversified away from tobacco in the first place. Floyd has spent most of his life in Fairmont, where tobacco is the staple of the economy.

``When I get something going well, I like to try something else,'' the white-bearded farmer says with a grin.

Something else drives him, too. Around Fairmont, most anyone who isn't a tobacco farmer works in a textile mill.

``This isn't security, but I'm not going to get up one morning and go to work and have someone say, `Go back home. We don't need you anymore.' I've known a lot of people that happened to,'' he says.

The national and international forces that control the tobacco and textile industries could blow Fairmont right out of existence. Floyd is determined to be a survivor.

With a motto of ``Problems are what keep you thinking,'' the Floyds make tackling a complex and unproven means of livelihood seem almost like fun.

But more traditional farmers find it harder.

Jeff Morton, a marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, notes that selling produce can depend on salesmanship, working with the public, ferreting out niches in supply and demand.

``Tobacco farmers have the most problems being involved in marketing,'' he says. ``They don't have the experience.''

Leaning against his tractor shed, Lennie Newton considers his 53 years of tobacco farming and says with a little smile, ``Don't know how to do anything else.''

``Yeah, you do. You know how to mechanic. Don't tell me you don't,'' Louis springs to his father's defense. ``You fix everything around here.''

``Don't want to do nothing else,'' his father says simply.

A future in farming may mean a change in attitude as well as in skills.

``When I first put the plastic down, I got so many comments if I'd had a dollar for every one, I'd have made more on that than I made on the crop,'' recalls Gerald Floyd, standing in the plastic-wrapped field where his cantaloupes grew. ``People were calling up members of my family, asking if I was crazy.''

He shakes his head at the landscape of fields and scattered barns. ``People won't try anything new around here. Hardheaded. They don't want anything to change, and nothing stays the same.''

Tobacco farmers who have spent generations on the land may have to learn new things to stay in farming.

``It's just like living,'' says Wallace Johnson, a marketing specialist who works with Jeff Morton. ``As new experiences come up you've got to be able to learn from those experiences and chart a course through new water. You've got to adapt and manage.''

At a roadside stand in Rougemont, Louis and Daniel Newton offered surplus vegetables from their garden this year and sold everything they had. They are planning to try it again with their fall garden, and ``if they do pretty good this year I think next year they'll increase their garden,'' Mrs. Newton says.

Just possibly that garden, not tobacco, will someday support their family's farm.

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