Farmers' future in jeopardy as cash crop falters

Regulations and increased health awareness threaten tobacco growers

Foreign imports now a threat

September 02, 1999|By Cox News Service

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Ephraigm Smith is a bear of a man, with big, meaty hands worn rough, dirt on them that no amount of soap will remove.

The farmer's hands are his tools, and they show their use.

He comes from a long line of men and women who drew their living from the land. His ancestors have been in Pitt County since the mid-1700s, first tapping vast tracts of pine trees for their valuable turpentine, then cultivating row crops such as cotton and corn and soybeans on the many acres in the Chicod community.

Smith, 56, recalled that cotton was king for a while here, as it was in much of the southeastern United States.

But around the turn of the century, even while farmers worked to keep weeds out of their crops, a weed was poised to take over the throne.

King tobacco crept into virtually every aspect of the county's economy and culture.

Children followed their parents into the fields, priming, looping and storing the leaf. Entire families, even those that didn't have a square foot of land to call their own, made a living planting and harvesting the crop.

Every year, the auctioneer's call lured thousands from the county's far reaches into warehouses in Greenville and Farmville. Growers, cash in hand from the morning's sale, patronized local merchants and often purchased enough supplies to last until the next tobacco season.

Life was symbiotic: A good year for the tobacco farmer meant a good year for the merchant, and vice versa.

Greenville itself lived and breathed with the golden leaf. Whistles from processing plants called the populace to work, sent them home to lunch, then called them back again.

Through this century, tobacco pumped billions of dollars into the economy, provided a livelihood for thousands, and shaped and sustained a way of life. But in the latter portion of the century, urbanization, increased awareness about tobacco's health effects, legal sanctions and government regulation chipped away at that lifestyle. And as Pitt County residents head into the 21st century, they are left wondering if tobacco will continue to be a force in their lives.

Last month, Smith stood in an expansive field of tobacco that announces its various stages of maturity in hues ranging from chartreuse to dark green. It is an apropos setting as he mulls the future of the inedible leaf that nourished several generations.

"As far as raising tobacco," Smith lamented after some thought, "I wouldn't encourage a young person, with the uncertainty there is now, to start raising tobacco."

Broken dreams

Tobacco began to supplant white cotton bolls as the dominant scenery around the eastern Carolina countryside after farmers realized that it bested even the profitable cotton as a cash crop even though it's expensive to grow and requires about 250 man-hours of labor per acre.

"The tobacco has been the mainstay of this family for generations," Smith said.

The story of his life, and his family's, is inextricably bound up in the heavy, broad leaves, he said. They came to symbolize the chance for prosperity, or at least something more than mere survival eked out out in the fields.

"[Tobacco] was all you had," Smith said. "That was the only game in town."

Where he grew up, there was no Hardee's or McDonald's where a school lad could flip burgers and earn cash for clothes and fun money.

"That's the way I got the spending money," Smith said of his tobacco work.

Shortly after World War II, "My daddy still had two wood-burning [barns]," Smith said.

Somebody had to monitor the fire around the clock to assure the temperature was right for curing the green tobacco. From late grammar school on, Smith was that sentinel.

"You stayed up all night," he said. "What they did, they made a bunk at the tobacco barn." Every couple of hours he would check on the barns, catching a few winks of sleep between rounds.

"They call them the good old days," Smith said wryly.

It was hard work, but the cured, golden leaves looked like greenbacks to the farm families that depended on them, said Smith, who keeps receipts dating to 1900 from tobacco sold at markets in Greenville.

But times change.

A study by James W. Kleckley, an economist and associate director for Planning and Institutional Research at East Carolina University, shows tobacco accounted for about 8 percent of the county's economy in the mid-1990s.

"Twenty years ago, farming of tobacco was probably 20 percent or more of the economy," he said. "It's just not as important as it once was in Pitt County."

Social mores have exerted downward pressure on tobacco's cultural and economic influence, said Mitch Smith, director of the Pitt County Agricultural Extension office.

The surgeon general's warning that began appearing on cigarette packs in 1969 "played a part in it," Smith said. "The anti-smoking sentiment definitely takes a toll."

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