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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Smoking is Out, Eating is In

Air Date: Week of

Some Kentucky tobacco farmers are anticipating the inevitable decline of the state's ubiquitous crop and are turning to other forms of farming such as organic vegetable production. John Gregory reports on the delectable success that a pilot program is yielding in the bluegrass state.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Tobacco is under fire in the US. And tobacco growers are feeling the assault. The healthy incomes and vibrant farming communities that tobacco has supported for generations are eroding in the face of growing health concerns and cheap foreign labor. Thousands are hanging on, and it's not just that they need to make a living. Growing tobacco is an art of which they are proud to be masters. Fine tobacco, like the burley that's found in many popular American cigarettes, is hand-raised on small family farms. It requires close and constant human attention. It can't be done with machines. But some in tobacco country say they may have found an alternative, which requires many of the same skills while returning a living wage: organic vegetables. Reporter John Gregory grew up on a tobacco farm, and he has our story from the heart of the Burley Region of Kentucky.

(Footfalls through a tobacco field; tobacco leaves being cut)

GREGORY: This is a familiar sound in Kentucky during August and September: the sound of tobacco being cut. Like lumberjacks moving through a forest of 6-foot trees, the workers walk through the narrow rows of yellowish-green tobacco, using a small axe to cut each of the plants off about an inch from the ground. With temperatures often in the 90s, the work is grueling. After a 12-hour day of cutting and hanging, these men will be covered in a thick layer of sweat, dirt, and sticky black tobacco gum.

HAYDON: We ought to be able to start loading the by 7. Should be cooled down enough for then.

?: I think so.

GREGORY: Larry Haydon raises tobacco near Willisburg in Central Kentucky. As he talks, his eyes switch from watching his 5-man crew to the rain clouds gathering in the northwest. Like most other Kentucky tobacco farmers, Hayden raises a type of leaf called burley tobacco: a key ingredient in many premium cigarettes.

HAYDEN: I got 20 acres; I got a cousin got 25. I got another cousin; he's got about 12 or 14 acres.

GREGORY: Haydon says this year's crop is one of the best in years. It's the future that concerns him. In addition to growing medical evidence and political pressures against smoking, American tobacco farmers are having to compete against increasing amounts of cheap imported tobacco. And the Federal Government could require farmers to cut tobacco production by as much as 30 to 40% next season. That would be a major blow to a state where tobacco farming generates $800 million in income, and where there are more tobacco farming families than any other state in the nation.

HAYDON: A lot of the older ones is just going out completely. You know, there's - don't think it's too good where I look forward, but I don't know. Maybe they're right.

(Beans being dropped into a wooden box)

GREGORY: About 70 miles southwest of Larry Haydon's farm, Allison Hamm is also busy trying to get her crop in before it rains. Her crop is yellow wax beans. Hamm is an organic vegetable farmer. On about 2-and-a-half acres atop a ridge line near Mammoth Cave National Park, she grows just about everything from beans and tomatoes to broccoli, sweet corn, okra, squash, peppers, and peas.

HAMM: I don't grow burley, and it's a personal decision not to. But my grandfather did. My dad put himself through college growing it. I've worked in it myself, and I have - all my neighbors grow it.

GREGORY: Hamm is about 1 of 20 farmers participating in the Kentucky Organic Growers, a pilot project to see if organic vegetable production can keep small family farms in business in the face of declining tobacco income. Pam Clay is a former environmental lawyer for the state of Kentucky, and is now the director of the organics program.

CLAY: I think that anybody who buys something in Kentucky that can be produced in a farm, it ought to be bought from a Kentucky farmer. And the first thing is that Kentucky farmers need to start producing it so that it's available to consumers.

GREGORY: Clay says the bulk of the produce goes to about 100 members who pay a $500 subscription fee for weekly deliveries of vegetables from May through October. The rest of the goods are sold to local restaurants and grocery stores. Although the project is not even through its first year, Clay says its success so far has caught the attention of some tobacco farmers.

CLAY: I think in the past when people have mentioned organic farmers, there have been some snickering going on: those crazy hippie types. No one's laughing this year.

HAMM: And the prices have been excellent.

GREGORY: Again, organic grower Alison Hamm.

HAMM: They've been better than good. They've been excellent. They've been better for the most part than I can get at the farmer's market in town, and I don't have to sit there and deal with 50 people to get it sold.

GREGORY: Food co-ops and subscription farming operations are increasing across the United States. But what makes the Kentucky program unique is its sponsor: the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. The organization created to help farmers market burley tobacco. John Berry, Jr. recently retired as president of the co-op. He's credited with bucking Kentucky's tobacco establishment to support this effort to explore alternative cash crops.

BERRY: They felt like that was a sign of weakness. That it was displaying to the world your belief that it was over for tobacco. Well, I disagreed with that, because I think any time that you're dependent on one crop, and a little handful of buyers for that crop, that you don't have to tell the world you're weak; everybody already knows it.

GREGORY: The tobacco co-op provides office space and equipment for the organics program, but no funding. That's come from private contributions and grants. Kentucky Governor Brererton Jones went out on a political limb last winter when he suggested that 10% of any new Federal tobacco tax be used to help support alternative crop programs. The idea was resoundingly rejected by Kentucky's Congressional delegation and farm leaders. John Berry also opposes the tobacco tax, and he says he wouldn't want the organics project to be dependent on tax dollars. But Berry still sees the need for additional capital to help this type of program expand.

BERRY: That project ought to include conventional production as well as organic. It ought to include beef and pork as well as vegetables. It ought to include any other option that Kentucky farmers have. So that we could compare all of the results and be able to take it in black and white to tobacco farmers not just in Kentucky but all of them who are members of the Burley Co-op.

GREGORY: But skepticism about the organics program runs high among Kentucky tobacco farmers, many of whom have heard numerous proposals over the years for a variety of alternative crops. It's a difficult sell, especially since tobacco generates more income per acre than any traditional farm crop. Paul Hornback grows tobacco near Shelbyville, Kentucky.

HORNBACK: The idea that you can convert from tobacco with those same 30 acres that I have into corn or soybeans or some type of vegetable crop is not an idea that will work. Number one, there's not a market established for 30 acres of sweet corn or soy or green beans, some type of high dollar crop. So there's a lot of problems that a lot of people don't look at.

GREGORY: Organics program director Pam Clay agrees that vegetable production won't be for everyone. There are more than 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky, and many of them already grow other crops or have jobs off the farm to supplement their income. But Clay says if she can get even 10 tobacco farmers to join the program next year, she will feel the project is a success.

CLAY: I know that that sounds like a really small number in comparison, and it is. But the good news is that, although the people who smoke in the United States and in Kentucky might be declining, that number, no one is going to stop eating. And from what I'm hearing from consumers, they want to be loyal to Kentucky farmers, if the farmers would just grow the products that they want to buy. And that's the key.

(Sound of an engine. Woman's voice: "Hi there! How are you today?" "I'm fine; how are you?" "All right." "Anything that needs explanation here?")

GREGORY: In the parking lot of the Burley Tobacco Co-op Offices in downtown Lexington, Clay helps distribute this week's vegetables to a dozen co-op members. The buyers also get recipes and a brief profile of the organic farmers that grow the vegetables. Lexington physician Barbara Phillips says this connection between farmer and consumer has been especially important to her.

PHILLIPS: I got interested in this because I'm one of those anti-smoking, pro-health zealots that want to see the end of tobacco. But in the course of this, have made friends with many of the farmers and some of the individuals involved here and have learned so much more than I ever thought I would about farming and land and soil and Kentucky and it's important to me, if possible, to see the inevitable weaning of farmers from tobacco without seeing the decline of the small family farm. This is one way that it might happen.

GREGORY: The Kentucky organic growers will distribute produce through the end of October. In November, the group will begin planting next year's crop and holding seminars for tobacco farmers and others who want to learn organic growing techniques. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Lexington, Kentucky.



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