Tobacco farmers worry about settlement Industry accounts for 8% of the economy of North Carolina

October 01, 1997|By HEARST NEWS SERVICE

KENLY, N.C. - In the sweltering heat of North Carolina's tobacco belt, David Hinnant cruises in a dusty pickup truck, dragging on his menthols as he hauls trailer-loads of green and gold leaves just picked from his family's crop.

Hinnant, 44, his father, R.J., brother, Ken, and 30 migrant workers are "barning" - packing tobacco leaves into metal barns to be cured for a week at increasingly higher temperatures until the leaves' starches turn to sugar.

It's peak time here in the rural Buckhorn area of Wilson County, and 16-year-old Clay Hinnant has rushed home from school to drive the family's new $75,000 mechanical harvester between rows of chest-high plants on their 1,700-acre farm. Like his ancestors who settled in the area in the 1700s, Clay expects to carve a livelihood from the crop known as "the golden leaf."

'A depressing time'

But lately the golden leaf has been wilting. Small growers like Donell Stancil, who farms 65 acres of tobacco in Glendale in neighboring Johnston County, say their way of life is being threatened. "It's a depressing time," Stancil says. "Everybody's vulnerable, because we have no political clout. Since the 1960s the attacks on tobacco have been building, but nobody ever thought it would come to this."

He was referring to the proposed $368.5 billion tobacco deal pending at the White House and in Congress. If approved, it would settle pending state and class-action lawsuits in exchange for billions of dollars in industry payments over the next 25 years. In return for some immunity from certain lawsuits, the industry would limit cigarette advertising, submit to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and pay for anti-smoking programs.

Hinnant says the pact "could be the biggest crisis there has ever been, or it could be another stumbling block we've got to get across." But ultimately, he insists, "I think we'll be growing tobacco for years to come. We're banking on the future."

Stancil is more worried. "We're on the endangered list because we're full-time tobacco farmers," he says, adding that if the pact is approved and ends up destroying tobacco markets, the federal government should compensate the farmers. Over the past three decades many farmers with fewer than 100 acres have been forced out of business.

'Tougher environment'

Blake Brown, a professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, predicts farmers will face "an even tougher environment" in the next few years because of the payments that cigarette companies have agreed to make, an expected drop in tobacco demand and a surplus of the crop internationally. The deal, Brown says, "will ultimately translate into a reduced amount of tobacco that farmers are allowed to grow."

Under an agricultural support program started in 1938, the federal government established allotments - quotas letting farmers plant and sell a certain amount of tobacco each year. The Department of Agriculture doles out the quotas annually to landowners based on anticipated demand and past production. The allotments and a government-guaranteed price floor help prevent wide fluctuations in prices. The system has helped preserve smaller farms, Brown says.

Tobacco farming is worth $1 billion to North Carolina's economy, and cigarette manufacturing generates another $11 billion. Combined, they account for 8 percent of the state's economy.

Hinnant concedes that he feels "looked down upon" for being associated with tobacco, but he argues that "it's not a product we force on anybody."

Hinnant is clearly proud of his heritage. On the walkway to his white-columned house is a green flag with three tobacco leaves. He notes that churches, roads, schools and businesses along the roads between the 30 fields he tends were built with tobacco money.

"The investment is so great, you don't want to take your eye off it," he says. "We're not getting rich on it, but we're paying our bills. ... I'm in this for life."

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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