Along Tobacco Row, a changed culture

A federal move to end subsidies and offer a buyout plan will aid big growers and cause smaller ones to give up their fields.

Tony Lee and Billy Massengill grew up with the musky scent of ripened tobacco dabbed on their necks and arms like a pungent "eau de leaf." As kids, they remember sleeping in their fathers' barns amid the curing leaves - a rite of passage in an area where tobacco has dominated the local culture and economy since the 1600s.

Now Mr. Lee and Mr. Massengill, both second-generation farmers, are about to see their lives change forever. The recent decision in Washington to end federal tobacco quotas and subsidies dating back to the Depression will not just transform the lives of individual growers. It will redefine the culture of the nation's Tobacco Row.

Under the legislation passed by Congress last week, cigarettemakers will fund $10 billion in payouts to growers in return for the end of price supports - an attempt to help farmers who've struggled through years of antismoking campaigns and a growing import market. In effect, the measure marks a return to a free-market economy in the broadleaf fields of the South: The government will no longer guarantee a price for tobacco, but it will ensure that farmers get billions to help them survive in a new world of unbridled competition - or, if they choose, to make their way in another profession.

With his farm already heavily mechanized, Mr. Lee might just make it as "leaf" enters the free market for the first time since the 1930s. But Mr. Massengill, with his hand-worked eight-acre farm, will start looking for a job as soon as the spillings are swept from the warehouse. "The little guys won't survive this," he says in a soft drawl. "Unfortunately, I'm one of the little guys."

Through bumper crops and blights, tobacco was the axis on which the South turned since the 1660s, ensuring a good living for small farmers, buttressing a life of gentility for the lords of the plantation class, and funding universities, roads, the birth of one nation, and the rebellion of another.

Under the so-called stabilization program, created in the throes of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt promised farmers a "floor" price for leaf - as long as the government could set quotas. For 60 years, the program worked as planned. But as smokers' ranks diminished and as new technology made foreign tobacco more palatable, quotas shrank: Since 1997, they've been halved. Farmers, many of whom had come to see the writing on the curing-shed wall, said that for tobacco farming to continue, the quota system had to go.

What they didn't know - and what became the focus of a 10-year lobbying effort - was whether they'd get bought out. After the buyout, tobacco prices will likely drop from $1.85 a pound to $1.45 or less. Some tobacco companies will still depend on American growers: the South's rich soil still grows the best leaf and offers a secure supply. But many say that in years to come, the tobacco industry may look more and more like California's corporate milk farms and Montana's grain conglomerates.

The culture that defined the South for centuries has been dealt blows before, as sure as old farms have become museums and tobacco warehouses have morphed into office space for dotcom start-ups. But many say the current transformation goes beyond being one more step in the march of time - and may instead mark a more substantive end to the era.

Tobacco farms, with their aluminum "dry boxes" where leaf is cured with heated flues, are slowly disappearing behind real estate developments and mobile home parks. In Wilson, N.C., the pungent fumes of flue-cured tobacco may have blown through town for the final time: This year's 115th Tobacco Market, in the buckle of the Tobacco Belt was the last one.

Meanwhile, men like tobacco auctioneer Matt Burnett, S.C., once mainstays of the fall festivals, are selling their time shares on Myrtle Beach. Now it's all about modernization, mechanization, and top-dollar contracts. For many, the buyout only affirms that the life they represent is fading fast - or already gone.

"The death of the culture far preceded the buyout," says Billy Yeargin, a tobacco historian at Duke University. "A culture, by its strongest definition, means a gathering of people who have common lifestyles, and this old-time way, the romantic family tobacco farm, went out of existence some time ago, for the most part."

That slow sense of a watershed is keenly felt on the ground as well as in academe. Keith Parrish, a Harnett County tobacco farmer and president of the Tobacco Growers Association, has pushed for a buyout for the last decade, often traveling to Washington 35 times a year. This week, he climbed on a tractor for the first time in months, gladly trading the marbled halls of Congress for the soil of his farm. "There's a lot of changes now ... and we're standing here exposed to everything that could possibly be happening," he says.

For all its $10 billion, the buyout holds many disappointments for farmers. What many asked for and didn't get was a shorter payout period and FDA oversight of foreign tobacco, which is subject to far less stringent pesticide standards than US-grown tobacco.

While the payouts will allow some growers to begin anew, Professor Yeargin, the tobacco historian, points out that it will be "hard for a farmer to ever find anything that's going to match what tobacco will bring him. Many will fall by the wayside and end up selling plywood."

Mr. Massengill, with his eight-acre farm, will get $30,000 over a decade. At $3,000 a year, he says, "it won't even cover the taxes."

Still, not everyone is sympathetic to the farmers' plight. A study by the Environmental Working Group, an industry watchdog, found that hundreds of tobacco farmers could receive more than $1 million each under the buyout plan. During congressional debate, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of Los Angeles, a longtime tobacco critic, called the measure "an abomination" that caters to special interests.

Much of the domestic farming will go to large growers, who cigarette companies have kept track of over the past quarter-century. Here in Johnston County, where hundreds once farmed, four or five growers are likely to remain, says Yeargin.

Even a large-scale farmer like Mr. Lee, though confident he'll farm next year, says the risks are daunting: "The prospect we face now is using our tobacco as mosquito repellent - by taking it out back of the barn and burning it."

The tobacco program was "probably the most successful relationship between the government and the people in the history of our country," says Yeargin. "There was a time when, for every dollar you spent, you knew that it could be traced back to the tobacco farmer. That's not the case any longer."

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