Tobacco farmers would rather switch (to broccoli) than fight (falling profits)

J.B. Tatum Jr. became a full-time farmer last year, and in Pittsylvania County, farming means tobacco. Tobacco has been the undisputed king for generations here, but its soaring production costs have turned Mr. Tatum to Southside Virginia's new cash crop - broccoli.

''I've always wanted to farm,'' the former nursery owner says, ''but I also need to be able to buy a loaf of bread. The cost of tobacco has just gotten so far out of line that I think I have a better chance putting my money and time in broccoli.''

After experimenting with one acre last year, Tatum says he'll plant 10 to 20 acres of broccoli this spring. More than 50 longtime tobacco farmers from Southside (south-central Virginia) agree with Tatum and are planning to set aside some acreage for broccoli, which can yield up to $1,000 an acre.

''To net $1,000 today on an acre of flue-cured tobacco,'' says Campbell County extension agent Allan Hunter, ''a producer has to be an awfully good farmer.''

State agriculture officials have been trying for years to reduce Southside farmers' heavy dependence on tobacco, and the steady decline in the leaf's profitability has made farmers eager for a supplemental crop. With increased competition from countries like Brazil and Zimbabwe, and with Americans smoking less, farmers find themselves growing less tobacco at high costs and stable, if not falling, prices.

One farmer puts it this way: ''To anybody that's willing to look at it, tobacco is a declining market. You don't invest in a declining industry, you invest in a growing one.''

While no one expects broccoli to replace tobacco here, the added income from the crop could mean the difference between profit and loss for farmers.

Last year, a cooperative based in Halifax, Va., marketed 37 acres of high-quality broccoli in a pilot program developed by state and local agriculture officials. A Richmond-based supermarket chain purchased as much of the co-op's crop as it could, paying $2 a box more than it paid for California broccoli.

''Most broccoli is grown out west and shipped from California, and it's bruised and has some age on it by the time it gets here,'' Mr. Hunter says.

This year, members of the Southside Virginia Produce Cooperative are expected to raise about 300 acres of broccoli - a tenfold increase from 1983.

''We don't ever expect to replace California or Texas, but we expect to be in the market with them,'' says Halifax County Extension agent Larry McPeters.

A recent United States Department of Agriculture study concluded that domestic broccoli production, which has quadrupled in the past 10 years, will increase 20 percent a year for the rest of the decade.

Wallace Wilson, a Southside Co-op board member, says if all goes well, there could be 2,000 acres of broccoli under cultivation here by 1989.

Market conditions have created a surplus of 761 million pounds of tobacco. The surplus has forced the federal government to cut Southside farmers' allotments - the amount of tobacco marketable under support prices - by 11.5 percent for 1984. Allotments have shrunk more than 50 percent since 1975, says Bobby Conner, president of the Southside Co-op.

Farmers have sought to rent allotments to increase their crops, bidding up the allotment leases to as high as 65 cents per pound. With the support price at farmers even put their plants in the field.

''Broccoli has a better potential in terms of production costs than tobacco because of the allotment costs,'' Mr. Conner says.

Tobacco farmers are well-equipped to produce broccoli for market. Fall broccoli, like tobacco, is sown in a seed bed and transplanted to the field. Broccoli needs to be watered periodically, and most tobacco farmers have irrigation systems. And, like tobacco, broccoli is a labor-intensive crop, as it ripens over a period of weeks and is hand-picked.

Mr. McPeters says some old-timers are reluctant to try their hand at broccoli. ''We're a traditional-type county, and tradition is hard to change.''

Conner adds that some farmers are concerned that the Southside Co-op is seeking to run tobacco out of the area. ''I'm trying to look at it (tobacco) realistically. We're just trying to survive.''

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