N.C. farmers feel pride, anxiety over tobacco Lucrative crop 'keeps us alive.' they say


HARMONY, N.C. - Riding around the Iredell County hills where their ancestors have grown flue-cured tobacco since the Civil War, Ralph and Richard Renegar survey all the comforts the crop has provided.

Selling their harvest at market paid for the dozen white-frame homes where the brothers' families, mother, uncles and many cousins live. It built the Baptist church where they worship and the community center where they socialize on a Friday night.

Today, the Renegar brothers still rely on the golden leaf. Though they grow tobacco on just 80 acres of their 200-plus-acre farm, the crop pays 98 percent of their bills.

"Tobacco is what keeps us alive," says Ralph Renegar, 47. Richard Renegar, 39, finishes the thought: "And there's nothing to take the place of it."

The brothers tried raising hogs as contract farmers, but that backfired. Richard says the corporate owners "pay us just enough to keep us from quitting."

Cattle prices are too depressed to turn a profit. And launching a different crop could pull the family into bankruptcy, with start-up costs so high and weather so fickle.

If all goes well in the tobacco growing season, as it did this past year, the brothers stand to make $500 profit on each acre. That's five to 10 times what they could make on another crop.

The Renegars take pride in their tobacco heritage and routine 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. workdays. So the Food and Drug Administration's attempt to regulate tobacco feels like an insult and an attack. They fear the results - but they aren't sure what they may be.

"I don't know how it will hurt us, exactly," says Ralph Renegar. "But I know it's not going to help us."

They theorize that new regulations could bring higher excise taxes on cigarettes and hurt consumers. The rules could push manufacturers to buy cheaper and imported tobacco and force U.S. farmers out of business. They say they, too, don't want kids smoking, but they believe the FDA wants to discourage all smoking.

"People aren't going to stop buying cigarettes," Ralph Renegar says."The tobacco is just going to come from overseas."

The FDA should start worrying about losing a ready source of taxes, he warns.

By his estimate, every plant in his curing barn generates $10 in federal, state and local taxes. The largest part is generated by the federal 24-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes.

"The federal government ought to have armed guards posted around that field - making sure I get every leaf," Ralph Renegar says, pointing to a strip of red soil where he'll plant seeds in May.

Richard Renegar, who sports a black "Keep the FDA off the Farm" cap, thinks anti-smoking advocates grossly exaggerate the health-related costs of smoking.

"Too much of anything is bad for you," Richard Renegar says. "Is smelling tobacco smoke any worse than sitting in town breathing car exhaust?"

He acknowledges smoking may contribute to some cancers, but doesn't believe it causes the one in five North Carolina deaths that researchers estimate.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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