Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Tobacco farmers find alternatives

Federal restrictions, declining demand cut deep

The Associated Press

Seth Meranda surveys a newly planted row of grapes that he hopes will replace the tobacco that he has traditionally farmed at his Brown County farm near Georgetown, OH.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
Federal tobacco restrictions and declining demand by cigarette companies have led to soybeans taking over as the biggest cash crop in southwestern Ohio's Brown County, known for decades as the state's tobacco capital.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets annual quotas on how much tobacco each farmer can sell, and those limits have been scaled back. On average, Ohio farmers can sell 62 percent less tobacco than five years ago.

That's one reason why the number of tobacco farms in Ohio, the nation's seventh-largest tobacco-producing state, has declined to 7,664, about 1,000 fewer than in 1997.

The average price of about $2 a pound paid for tobacco has changed little in the past five years, so growers who rely mainly on tobacco have seen their income decline substantially.

"It's like your job being cut from 40 hours to 20 hours a week, and they're going to pay you at the same rate," said David Dugan, an agent in the Brown County office of the Ohio State University Extension Service.

graphic The federal government began cutting tobacco quotas just before 1998, when four major tobacco companies agreed to pay 46 states a total of $246 billion to end lawsuits against them over the hazardous effects of smoking. Part of the settlement money pays for anti-smoking campaigns.

Those efforts, combined with increasing excise taxes on cigarettes and increased use of cheaper foreign tobacco, have hurt the demand for tobacco in the United States and resulted in lower quotas.

Tobacco income is difficult to replace. Dugan said a farmer can earn $4,000 from an acre of tobacco, compared with $312 from an acre of corn.

The transition has been particularly tough for families long accustomed to receiving annual checks from tobacco sales just before Christmas.

"Some are becoming desperate. I can't use any other word," said Ed Cruttenden, director of tobacco programs for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. "Many will make the adjustment, and some won't."

Two of those who are adjusting are Seth and Tina Meranda, who planted grapevines this spring on Brown County land where tobacco has grown since Seth's great-grandfather started farming in 1913. The couple hopes for a future in the wine industry.

"We don't feel like we're betraying the family tradition at all," Seth Meranda said. "If anything, we feel like we're carrying the tradition on - in agriculture."

Pat Raines, who farms 1,200 acres in Adams County, grows flowers and plants in greenhouses where tobacco seedlings once were nurtured. He also is raising more beef cattle and planting more acres of soybeans and corn.

His tobacco quota has been cut to 9,000 pounds a year, compared with 16,000 pounds in 1997.

Jay Saylor, a tobacco farmer near Georgetown, began raising goats a couple of years after her annual tobacco quota began sliding.

Her challenge is to find a market for goat meat. One prospect is the Muslim community, which she has yet to tap.

"It's going to be backbreaking work to get established," Saylor said.

Grants from the tobacco settlement are available for farmers. But some still aren't earning enough to stay in business, said Don Branson, executive director of the Southern Ohio Agricultural and Community Development Foundation, which also provides grants.

"When you talk about agriculture in general, the trend continues to be fewer farmers, fewer people milking cows, fewer people raising crops," Branson said. "People are just not being able to survive in tobacco or in agriculture."

A buyout plan being considered in Congress would end the government price-support system for tobacco. In exchange, farmers would receive lump-sum payments for six years.

Those who accept the buyout but continue to grow tobacco would be able to sell only to tobacco companies through individual contracts.

Many farmers are awaiting a buyout offer, and Congress probably will approve one this year, said Henry West, president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, which runs Ohio's price-support program.

"There are a lot of people who are going broke," West said. "They need out."

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