Not Feelin' Finer in Carolina

As antismoking movement grows, tobacco farmers lose a way of life

A SUN-WORN farmer putters ahead in his tractor on the paved road that winds its way through miles of tobacco in this lush, sparsely populated area of the Tarheel State.

Just a town away lies Winston-Salem, a city of 150,000 where that tobacco is processed into the Camel, Winston, and Salem cigarettes that are today at center stage of health-care and drug debates nationwide.

And though the computerized factories and executive offices of the R.J. Reynolds Co., headquartered in that city, are a world apart from Belews Creek, the decisions made there - and in Congressional offices in Washington - greatly affect the livelihood of these rural farmers.

``Cigarettes are not illegal yet,'' says Raymond Hester, a member of a dwindling number of family farms in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. ``I don't understand politicians' interest in putting us out of business,'' he says. ``They've singled tobacco out.''

Because tobacco does not lend itself to mechanized harvesting and is a highly profitable commodity crop, tobacco farmers don't have to work thousand-acre holdings to make a living off the land, and family farming has been as much a part of the landscape in North Carolina as the loose, loamy soil in which tobacco grows.

Little-by-little, though, as smoking has become known as a health hazard, growing tobacco has become a less-secure way to make a living. Demand for tobacco is down as fewer people smoke, the profit margin for farmers shrinks with increasing taxes, and the less money a farmer can make from an acre, the more acres he must own. Now, a Democratic plan to finance health-care reform through a hefty cigarette tax and today's strong antismoking sentiments threaten to end family farming here for good.

To farmers in Belews Creek, tobacco as a crop that allows a family to make a living is separated from the national debate over cigarettes as a dangerous product. ``I sympathize with today's farmers, my neighbors, good people who cherish their way of life and who wonder why, after generations of honorable farming, they sometimes feel as if they are criminals,'' a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal, who grew up in a rural area near the city, wrote recently.

Farming families like the Hesters don't care what they grow. They would grow corn if they could, or wheat or broccoli or tomatoes. But the money isn't in those crops. Corn brings in roughly $150 in profits per acre, whereas tobacco's take is $1,200 or more.

Mr. Hester's father raised four boys by growing tobacco. But Raymond and his wife have needed more than just the farm to raise their three children. Raymond has had to take a job at a local company while his wife tills the land, prays for rain, stoops down to pluck the broad leaves, packs the sweet-smelling tobacco into curing barns, and carts it off to the auctions where it is converted into cash.

Of their college-educated son who would rather experiment with more efficient methods of tobacco growing than work an office job, they say reluctantly: ``We wouldn't want him to plan on [growing tobacco], especially with today's political climate.''

The Hesters' voices assume a bitter tone as they defend tobacco farming against those who find their profession immoral. Farmers are not making people smoke cigarettes made from the tobacco they grow, Joan Hester explains. They are simply making a living the way they always have. ``With us it's just a way of life; it's been imbedded in us,'' she says.

Her husband adds, ``This is another part of cultural diversity, and it's one that's going to be lost.''

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