NATION With no buyout, worries for tobacco farmers grow



U.S. tobacco production has been nearly cut in half in the past six years.
WHITAKERS, N.C. (AP) -- When Dwight Watson drove his tractor into a pond near the Washington Monument last spring to publicize the tobacco farmer's plight, angry commuters snarled in rush-hour traffic saw him as little more than a nut case.
Fellow leaf growers wondered whether Watson, who flew the American flag upside down in a gesture of distress, was a shadow of things to come.
"Nine out of 10 are as low as Mr. Watson," said his neighbor, Kay Fisher. "Nine out of 10 farmers are setting right on the brink."
Like tobacco farmers across the South, Watson was hanging on to his struggling livelihood, hoping Congress would approve a buyout of his quota, or the amount of tobacco he's entitled to grow under a federal Depression-era price support system.
Tired of waiting
But those hopes died again this year when Congress headed home for the holidays without a deal. And many farmers say they have grown weary of waiting for the relief that always seems to be just around the corner.
"This was their last hope and their last salvage," Fisher said.
Kentucky grower Bruce Cline said the anticipation surrounding the buyout has already kept many farmers in tobacco years longer than their better business sense would have dictated.
"There's this carrot hanging out in front of you, and they're saying, 'Maybe one more year,"' said Cline, a third-generation tobacco farmer who grows 300,000 pounds of burley in western Kentucky's Christian County. "They could have left in '98 with some dignity and some assets. ... But we've been chasing this carrot to the point where people will be left with nothing."
Declines in the number of U.S. smokers and a steady increase in the amount of imported leaf from countries such as Brazil and Zimbabwe have sent U.S. tobacco production plunging from nearly 1.8 billion pounds in 1997 to an estimated 831 million pounds this year. Farmers have also seen the government cut their quotas cut by half over the past five years, and are anticipating another 25-percent cut this year.
Thinking behind buyout
The idea behind the buyout was that by taking away quotas, the cost of production would drop and farmers would be free to grow as much tobacco as their land could support. Quotas are tied to individual farms; in many cases, quota owners don't grow the tobacco themselves, but instead charge farmers up to 75 cents a pound to lease their growing rights.
Eliminating the lease costs wouldn't make the farmers more money, but their tobacco would be more competitive on the global market. And compensation for the quotas would enable some farmers to leave the business.
Early versions of the buyout legislation totaled nearly $16 billion, to be paid by cigarette companies.
In a grand compromise with lawmakers from nontobacco states, that plan was tied to some form of Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products, something cigarette makers had fought for years. But those efforts foundered over disagreements on the FDA provisions. Last-ditch proposals to push through a $7 billion buyout also failed.
One farmer's view
The failure of a buyout won't keep 36-year-old Fred Wetherington from continuing to grow tobacco on his farm near Hahira in south-central Georgia. But he thinks people who've invested their futures in tobacco and want to get out should be helped along.
"I'm young enough if I had to, I could do something else," he said. "But these folks who have done it all their lives should have an opportunity to get out with some dignity. They've played by the rules. What's happened is out of their control."
But critics argue that peanut farmers gave up their quotas last year, and tobacco farmers need to join the free market, too.
"What other American farmer has ever received such unjustified largess from Congress -- billions of dollars for a so-called 'buyout' while keeping a federal government tobacco program in place?" No. 1 cigarette maker Philip Morris asked in a recent memo to Congress.

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