Farmers move away from the tobacco leaf

With Big Tobacco hurting, planters diversify to survive.

If there's one thing that has been a unifying force in the Privette family history, it is tobacco.

For three generations, life here has been measured in planting seasons, etched in parallel planting rows that stretch to the horizon, and effused in the sweet scent of cured tobacco rising from brimming burlap bags.

But today, as a stubble-chinned Al Privette surveys the land his grandfather planted, he sees a vastly changed tableau.

Thousands of perky, one-year-old red oak, willow, and magnolia trees - set to be sold to landscapers - stand at attention in the venerable Piedmont dirt. A herd of braying beef cows mill around a farm pond full of black bass. And hundreds of his other acres have been leased to other farmers.

Like thousands of other farmers across America's Tobacco Belt, Mr. Privette has begun to wean himself from a crop that defined the South's economy and culture for the past 400 years. Long loath to abandon such a profitable plant, farmers are now turning to everything from ginseng to soybeans to simply survive.

Indeed, with tobacco struck by a drop in demand, shrinking labor pools for harvest, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits, more agriculturists are deciding that it is no longer "the currency of the South."

"It's an interesting situation because we knew the day would come where we'd go from defense of tobacco to [a position] of: What do we do as a supplement or a replacement?" says Mike Barrett, chair of the University of Kentucky's agronomy department."Right now, that's what's happening around here."

Evidence of change

To offer some support for the tobacco industry - and the farmers that support it - lawmakers in key tobacco states are attempting to pass measures to shield Big Tobacco from lawsuits. But momentum away from tobacco is already apparent from Kentucky to North Carolina.

*In Durham, N.C., where the Gothic archways of Duke University are a testament to the old Duke family tobacco empire, abandoned brick tobacco warehouses are slated for renovation. Old R.J. Reynolds warehouses in Winston-Salem, N.C., have been replaced by condominiums.

*Most of the old cigar-rolling plants in Tampa, Fla., have long since fallen quiet, and once-vibrant markets in Lexington, Ky., and Richmond, Va., are being gobbled up for office space.

*The riverside capital of Frankfort, Ky., was built to avoid a rapids in the river - in order to ease the floating of leaf downriver to New Orleans. Now, it's solely a muggy administration town.

Shrinking labor pools have played a part in the decline, as few locals choose to work outdoors anymore in the furnace-blast months of July and August.

But clearly, the huge lawsuits against the industry - and the antismoking campaigns that have come with them - have done the most damage. Domestic consumption has dropped 7 percent during the past few years. Moreover, tobacco companies, worried about more suits, are ordering less from American farmers and opting instead for cheaper product from Brazil and Zimbabwe.

Privette, for example, has seen his quota cut by almost half in three years - to the lowest levels in half a century.

"It's getting so that it's very hard to find a feasible way to grow tobacco anymore," Privette says."Three years of quota cuts in a row, with no one sure what happens next - that hurts."

So it's not by happenstance that a traditional tobacco capital like Kentucky has become the No. 1 ginseng producer in the nation.Getting Kentuckians to admit that, however, is a difficult task. When the University of Kentucky's Gary Palmer asked a group of farmers in Wayne County who was growing ginseng, not one hand went up.

"There were some of them, of course, who are already growing it," Dr. Palmer says."They just didn't want the others knowing about it."

Leaf farming isn't something Privette is keen to drop, either. Few see American high-grade tobacco, which still supplies most of the international market, disappearing from American shores. After all, it is still the top cash crop in many states.

"Here in North Carolina, people recognize that tobacco has a dramatic impact on our retailers, financial institutions - everybody," says Burley Mitchell, a former state Supreme Court justice, who helped write North Carolina's tobacco shield law."We don't think of Big Tobacco in the sense of some Hollywood version of a corporate board room.Here, it's a part of life."

For now, the 9,000 hardwood seedlings Privette hopes to sell on the booming landscaping market take up only an eight-acre corner of his farm. They're here to help him continue farming tobacco, not to replace it.

A lonelier line of work

But tobacco-farm life has grown lonelier in the gentle valley that surrounds Privette's red-painted farm buildings.

"It used to be that everybody during the season used to come by here to talk about the crops, the curing, what's going on in the barns," Privette says."There's not many people to talk about tobacco with anymore."

In fact, most of the leaf farmers in this quiet, rolling country are now elderly. William Horton, a farmer who has spent almost nine decades here, lives alone just up the road, having produced no heirs to his land.Across the street, Vassar Sharon - known mostly for his sweet potato fields - raised three daughters. None of them brought sons-in-law back to the farm.

Even within the Privette family, there's dissension about the next generation. In this valley, Privette is the youngest farmer.His wife, Bobbie, looking at her two toddler sons, says, "I don't want my sons doing this.I see my husband working so hard, and I just don't want them to have to do that, too."

Al nods his head."My mom never wanted any of us to keep doing this, and she's been after me all my life for it."

With two kids, a sprawling family farm, and a "former yuppie" as his wife, Privette does not fit the stereotype of a Southern dirt farmer. He doesn't smoke or chew tobacco, and he takes sons Ellis and Jacob on a tour of the farm in a golf cart most evenings to get them ready for bed.

"Every time we turn on the TV, they're talking to some old guy with one tooth in his mouth about the plight of the industry," says Bobbie."I would just hate for someone to think that we're like that."

On the farm are thick-planked drying barns and rusted-out shells of old tractors, still neatly lined up in a back pasture. In a dusty barn attic, Privette reveals a burnished grading table that workers once used to hang classified leaves.

Like the Privette cart, the pace of life here is slow, measured in the time it takes to cure leaves in the propane-fired barn or bicker over prices at the grading table.

But increasingly, the yearly pilgrimages to cities like Wilson, N.C. - once the buckle of the Tobacco Belt and the world's largest tobacco market - are dwindling.

"Everyone realizes that we've been lucky to keep our tobacco farming population steady ... for the past decade," says the University of Kentucky's Palmer."Now that number is about to drop drastically in the next three to four years."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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