Farmers besieged by rise in imports, drop in demand, corporate desertion GROWING DESPAIR

May 29, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

CHASE CITY, VA — CHASE CITY, Va. -- In the rolling, steamy farmlands of Southern Virginia, few farmers own the combines and harvesters that have come to dominate U.S. agriculture. Instead of vast fields sown and reaped by machines, the land here is punctuated by ponds, trees and rows of farm workers bending over the region's lifeblood: tobacco.

Recently transplanted from greenhouses into the soil, the plants will require hundreds of hours of manual labor and thousands of dollars worth of fertilizer before they mature into a valuable cash crop.

By the time the costly process of harvesting, curing and packing the chocolate-brown leaves is complete, the small farmers who dominate the tobacco-growing industry will have earned a comfortable, middle-class wage.

Yet these farmers face unprecedented economic dislocation that could well change the character of large chunks of Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina.

As U.S. tobacco manufacturers and international competition work together to squeeze the profitability out of tobacco farming, small tobacco growers are losing their one sure chance -- under current conditions, at least -- to remain independent and prosperous in an age of industrialized agriculture.

This is an oft-forgotten side to the great tobacco debates that have swept the country over the past decade.

As attention has focused on Washington's attempts to stamp out smoking, a huge industry is in the midst of a painful -- and possibly terminal -- decline.

More specifically, the challenges facing tobacco and its overseers in Washington include the:

* Future of many small communities in the Southeast that still rely on tobacco farming. While governments have made a

concerted effort to discourage smoking, their policies have ignored farmers' and communities' needs.

* Appropriate role of the federal government in helping tobacco companies and farmers export their products. Thanks to help from the federal government, U.S. tobacco manufacturers have won new markets overseas, but foreign countries are rebelling at U.S. pressure to export a dangerous product.

* Viability of the proposed 75-cents-a-pack tax. Many public policy experts see it as regressive and not likely to raise as much money as predicted. In addition, Washington's onslaught raises potentially troubling questions about the role of government in citizens' daily habits.

At first blush, listing problems faced by the tobacco industry may have a familiar ring.

King James of England lobbied hard against it in the early 17th century and for much of the past 400 years it has been a controversial product.

But as Virginia Tech agronomy professor James Jones puts it, "it's never had the president, the First Lady and everyone else from every direction coming at it. Tobacco is under siege as never before.

"It's a whole new ballgame."

Of all the players in tobacco's new game of survival, the most vulnerable are the growers, who are bewildered that the government would want to take away their ticket to prosperity.

"I don't understand when I have a legal agricultural commodity and am making an honest living, why someone wants to take that away," said Jim Jennings, a farmer who grows 75 acres of flue-cured tobacco in Southern Virginia.

Growers most vulnerable

Of all the players in tobacco's new game of survival, the most vulnerable are the growers, who are bewildered that the government would want to take away their ticket to prosperity.

"I don't understand when I have a legal agricultural commodity and am making an honest living, why someone wants to take that away," said Jim Jennings, a farmer who grows 75 acres of flue-cured tobacco in Southern Virginia.

Sitting in his two-story house, Mr. Jennings has seen his revenues shrink nearly 20 percent over the past two years, and faces greater cuts in the future that could see him quit tobacco farming. For Mr. Jennings, this would mean he would lose the comfortable lifestyle that tobacco farming affords.

"Put it this way, I have a house, my wife doesn't have to work and I'm raising two children. Tobacco is what feeds my family," Mr. Jennings said.

Mr. Jennings is unsettled by proposals floating around Washington that would add between 75 cents and $1.25 to a pack of cigarettes, a move that would cut tobacco use just as demand for U.S. tobacco is dropping at an unparalleled rate.

Tobacco farmers pay to support a price-stabilization program that has held the price of most kinds of tobacco at between $1.70 and $1.85 a pound.

When demand for the tobacco declines, the farmers' stabilization program buys excess tobacco and stores it in warehouses until better years come. If production is still too high tobacco production is cut.

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