Iowa Public Television

 

Will Farmers' Futures Go Up In Smoke?

posted on May 20, 2005


A recent survey of 235 tobacco growers by the University of Kentucky showed that one-third of those who grew the golden leaf in 2004 will NOT grow it in 2005. Faced with the loss of the government program that for decades set tobacco price and production controls, farmers now are turning to everything from grapes to grains ... and from livestock to flowers and herbs.

The resiliency of the farmers is being aided by the federal government's multi-billion dollar buyout program ... and by local efforts to supplement the transition. Nancy Crowfoot profiles one family's attempt to "grow" a new business.

Will Farmers' Futures Go Up In Smoke? This land in eastern North Carolina has been in the same family for seven generations -- eight if you count eight-year-old Anderson O'Brien. His father, Michael, manages the farm, which currently is owned by his mother and her two sisters. It's been a diversified farm of 840 acres, up until this year when 370 acres were sold. Historically, the main crops have been corn, cotton, peanuts and the product most valued -- tobacco.

Michael O'Brien, farmer, Whitakers, North Carolina: "Historically it was the money crop. Cotton and peanuts were a distant second."

Cotton still is raised on the farm. But peanuts haven't been grown here since the government's 2002 peanut buyout program.

And over the years, reliance on tobacco was iffy. For 60 years, the federal government controlled production and price. O'Brien, who provided the land to another farmer to grow tobacco and they split the profit, said his government-issued tobacco allotment had been dwindling annually -- from over 20,000 pounds 15 years ago, to 8,000 pounds last year on just four acres of land.

Michael O'Brien: "So as far as the actual land use it really won't have any effect on the way things are going in the future. But we'll miss the income."

It's been the most profitable crop per acre ... until now.

Last October, President Bush signed a bill to eliminate the supply-and-price control program ... and establish a $10.1 billion Tobacco Transition Payment program.

Farmers apply for payments through two different formulas. After doing the math, O'Brien says the family farm he manages will receive $85,000 over a 10-year period.

And for the first time in that 180-year family history on this land, no tobacco will be planted.

But while one of the family's traditional crops has wilted away ... another one is "blooming".

Michael O'Brien: "I really did want to be a corn and cotton and peanuts guy and it turns out I'd have been jumping on a sinking ship so the flower thing has really worked out well for me."

O'Brien and his wife started flower farming 10 years ago. He built three greenhouses and in the past few years began to acquire and modify used tobacco equipment, including this disk-like ripper-bedder and a tobacco transplanter used to mechanically plant his flower plugs. A more recent purchase was a walk-in cooler to store his cut flowers. Much of the equipment was purchased with some $9,500 in grant money from a fund established in 1997 to respond to changes in the federal government's tobacco program.

Jason Roehrig, program director, Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund at Rural Advancement Foundation International USA (RAFI), Pittsboro, North Carolina: "There was no silver bullet to replace tobacco income and it was going to take a huge diversity of ideas and enterprises to replace tobacco."

Jason Roehrig is the program director for the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which so far has helped now-former tobacco growers finance 68 projects in 25 counties.

Jason Roehrig: "The types of enterprises that people are bringing forward are trying to get their products closer in the value chain to the retail price for products as opposed to the commodity price for products."

But getting closer to the retail market is time-consuming for farmers and takes them away from work in their fields.

Daphne O'Brien, farmer, Whitakers, North Carolina: "I do a lot of the customer relations, finding out what people want, what people like. I kind of keep up with what they don't like. I try to talk to them about flower care.

The retail end of the business is growing slowly. The bulk of the sales come from 75 customers who pay for a "subscription" service -- weekly business or home delivery of flowers: $300 for 10 weeks and up to $500 for 20 weeks.

The O'Briens also fill custom orders for parties and sell at farmers markets. But recently, after several failed attempts, they've abandoned plans to market to local florists.

Michael O'Brien: "We often wish that we could take a truckload of tulips to the grain market and say, 'here, you sell them'."

Marketing their product may seem frustrating at times, but confidence is high that the O'Briens are doing all the right things to succeed.

Jason Roehrig: "Of course, we would wish that things would happen more quickly. But its just time. They're still going to get where they want to go with that."

And where they want to go, includes agri-tourism. They want visitors to come not just to see the flower fields & but to see the tobacco history here -- outbuildings that are a reminder of a crop that helped keep this family farm in business for seven generations.

The question is can flower farming achieve the same success level for them, their son & and any generations to follow.

Michael O'Brien: "I think it could probably do as well or better than tobacco. And we're profitable, especially if you don't consider how much time we put in it. I'm sure all farmers do it that way."

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture government news smoking tobacco