As times change, tobacco farming slowly dissipates

August 28, 1994|By New York Times News Service

FARMVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA — FARMVILLE, N.C. -- It's a drippy 92-degree afternoon at Shackelford's Grocery, which sells Coke in old green bottles and pickled pigs' feet from gallon jars. Two barefoot boys, 11 and 12, bound in, carrying primitive fishing poles and exulting over six bass and one bream they caught in Tyson's pond.

At the four-stool counter, James Shackelford Jr., the store's owner and the son and son-in-law of tobacco farmers, lights a Winston and talks about a friend who lit up at an auto dealership. When the man was told that smoking was not allowed, he tore up his check for a pickup truck and walked out, Mr. Shackelford says.

But for all the defiant chatter at the grocery store, America's tobacco roads are leading toward a dead end.

The tobacco fields here in Pitt County, N.C. -- the biggest-producing county in the biggest-producing state -- no longer pay a family's bills. The culture born of tobacco farming is fast becoming an artifact.

Pitt County's growers, who produce the flue-cured variety used in cigarettes, have been hurting for some time because of the public attacks on tobacco, from smoking bans to tax increases.

As much as they bristle about all that, the families running the country's 125,000 tobacco farms are struggling with an even bigger, more immediate threat.

Glut of foreign tobacco

They face a worldwide glut of low-priced tobacco, with big and growing exporters -- China, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Argentina -- vying for a market that Americans once dominated and selling for prices that are one-half to two-thirds of the U.S. prices.

Both the quality and volume of foreign tobacco production have increased significantly in recent years, the result of improved techniques.

Already, foreign competition has contributed to a 10 percent decline in prices for U.S. flue-cured tobacco and a 25 percent decline in the number of tobacco farms in a decade, the Department of Agriculture estimates. Now the glut is likely to accelerate those processes.

To keep prices from plunging as the glut developed last year, Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp., an industry-financed agency in Raleigh, N.C., bought 23 percent of the flue-cured harvest, 205 million pounds, equal to all of its purchases in the three previous years.

Farmers agreed to a 10 percent cut in this year's production to try to stabilize the markets.

Still, the glut persists. Tobacco experts predict an even larger cut in production for 1995.

"I see a possibility that production will be off 20 [percent] to 40 percent next year," said Mitchell Smith, the Pitt County agent for the state Cooperative Extension Service.

A production cut of that magnitude would mean big cuts in farmers' incomes.

From a peak of $1.9 billion in sales of cured tobacco in 1981, U.S. farmers received $1.5 billion last year, and Verner Grice, the Agriculture Department's top tobacco economist, predicts a decline to $1.35 billion this year.

With the harshest blows yet to come, Farmville's town manager, Richard W. Hicks, said, "The effect I've seen so far is fear."

The principal cigarette companies, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard, still collect handsome profits because they can sell cigarettes abroad, where consumption is still growing, and because they have found a way to exploit the tobacco glut.

They import foreign tobacco and blend it with American tobacco, which is still considered a premium product.

But here on Farmville's Moye-Turnage Road, at the bottom of the tobacco chain, farmers and farm workers have no protection from the double whammy of imported tobacco and American smoking bans. Scrimping to make ends meet, the farmers have automated to reduce the cost of labor.

Migrant workers move in

The minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and the seasonal nature of the jobs discourage most local workers from taking them. Mexican migrant workers have moved in.

To make a living, Mr. Shackelford, 34, has started a business removing farmers' underground diesel tanks. He says the store, which he inherited from his father, once bustled.

Most farm owners have sold out and moved or have leased their tobacco land to bigger farmers who live elsewhere in Pitt County.

Anna Belle Blalock, 78, the widow of a tobacco farmer, used to own a clothing store in town. "I remember I took in $1,700 in one day, about 20 years ago," she said. Now she owns a soda shop, which at noon one recent day had only one customer.

"I'd like to see the town grow," she said. "What it has done is shrunk up."

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