ABINGDON, Va. (AP) - In his barn in rural Washington County, David Lloyd strips tobacco leaves off the stalks, expertly dividing them into four grades. After years as a tobacco farmer, his hands fall easily into the rhythm of the work that has driven the county's economy for generations.
"I'm probably the last of the line back here," he said. "Now we have cattle and a sawmill, and I drive a school bus to make it work."
Until a year ago, his son, 19-year-old Bear Lloyd, thought he was going to spend his career raising burley tobacco as his father did. But with demand for tobacco ever on the decline, this year he isn't growing any.
Instead, Bear Lloyd shows off some of the other things his family's gotten into to make up for the shrinking tobacco market, a trend that's accelerated since the end of a decades-old federal quota and price support program five years ago.
The family now has goats and hair sheep, which they sell up north for meat, and cattle. But the hot new thing is an experimental field of canola, which in November is just sprouting from the soil where this year's tobacco crop was grown.
"It's in an old tobacco patch," Bear Lloyd said. "We're the only ones in the county with this right now."
Five years after the federal buyout that ended the tobacco quota and price support program, a lot of Washington County farmers say they're still working on ways to cover the lost income. For most of them, that means doing a little bit of everything.
There was a time when tobacco ruled as the region's chief cash crop, and Abingdon served as a regional marketing center.
"Tobacco built this area," said Danny Peek, an extension specialist for burley tobacco.
"So much of the economy here was based on that in past years, almost every farm in this area had a tobacco allotment," Peek said. "Back under the quota system, every family farm had a little tobacco on it."
Kenneth Reynolds, a member of the county Board of Supervisors and a third-generation tobacco farmer near Abingdon, said tobacco once was the main economic driver in the region.
"With the volume of the tobacco we had in this area, we were just kind of the tobacco capital of Southwest Virginia," Reynolds said. "We had probably 12 tobacco warehouses here, and people brought their tobacco here from probably a 40 or 50 mile radius, and it just had a tremendous impact here in our community."
Tobacco paid the bill when people bought new vehicles or sent their children to college, Reynolds said. And in its heyday, its importance was celebrated with a big festival each year.
The decline started long before the buyout, but Peek said the buyout made a big difference, causing the price to drop by 25 percent. Meanwhile, the cost of production has slowly gone up.
With the buyout, many older farmers retired, Peek said. A lot of younger farmers found jobs in town. Now, he said, companies can hand-pick their favorite growers.
"It's tough because it's just such a tight profit margin," Peek said. "You had a lot of smaller growers. Now you have a few larger growers."
Without the mandatory reporting requirements of the quota program, Peek said, there isn't good data on how many people have stopped growing tobacco since the buyout. But while 7,000 acres were cultivated for tobacco in Virginia before the buyout, an estimated 2,600 acres are in tobacco now, still enough to produce $9 million worth.
"Forty years ago, everybody made money growing tobacco; it was just a matter of how much you got paid," Peek said. "Today it's a matter of survival of the fittest."
The quota and price support system for tobacco was established in the 1930s under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a New Deal program designed to drive up prices paid to farmers for their crops by restricting production.
Under the program, each grower had a limit on how much tobacco he could market. Over time the quota allotments themselves came to have value because they were necessary to do business.
But after the health risks associated with tobacco became known, states began suing the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, resulting in financial settlements with all 50 states by 1998.
The tobacco companies then settled with the 14 tobacco-producing states, to compensate them for losses growers would suffer as a result of the first set of agreements.
Not long after, the federal government decided it was time to get out of the tobacco business altogether, by ending the quota and price support program. Congress passed the buyout in 2004, as the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act.
The first crop year affected was 2005, and the law included a provision of payments to tobacco quota holders and growers for 10 years, from 2005 through 2014.
Now, tobacco is sold primarily through contracts with the companies that buy it, and farmers say the number and size of the contracts offered have continued to decline.
"You don't know more than one year ahead, so you can't put any money in it," David Lloyd said. "You can't buy any equipment, because you don't know when
you're going to get the ax."
Still, he said, the buyout didn't turn out to be "the end of everything" as some people predicted, though it did drop the price of tobacco significantly. Instead, it ushered in a sort of slow death that has pushed farmers who grow tobacco toward other things.
Five years later, roughly half of the tobacco farmers in Virginia and neighboring states have stopped farming tobacco, said Anthony Flaccavento, whose efforts to develop sustainable, local food production have provided one outlet for farmers to change gears.
But more often, farmers who once grew tobacco said they've replaced their lost income with off-the-farm jobs and beef cattle.
For Phil McCall it's been a double transition. A one-time dairy farmer, McCall took a job in construction when he went out of business 12 years ago, but he continued growing tobacco as a sideline. Then, the buyout came five years ago, so McCall went out of that business too. Now, he raises beef cattle, which he said has replaced his lost tobacco income.
"I don't know of anything else that has replaced tobacco here," he said. "Some people went into pumpkins, which was very few. Some of the farmers bring things to the Farmers' Market now; that's been beneficial to generate income but that's not a large quantity."
Flaccavento said fruits and vegetables, both organic and conventional, are growing in popularity, though the demand for fresh, local produce is still greater than supply and greater than it's been in past years.
"The biggest difference between now and five or six years ago is there's a lot more marketing opportunities," Flaccavento said. "The stuff you can grow or produce is about the same, there's just a lot more places to sell it."
He said the recent growth in demand stems from a combination of local efforts and national trends toward healthy eating and local foods. As a result, there's been an explosion in the production of produce and free-range meats, which are sold at farmers markets, and to local restaurants, colleges and institutions, and grocery stores.
"It's talked about in terms of eating better, it's talked about in terms of a way to fight diabetes, and it's talked about in terms of a way to help the local economy," Flaccavento said. "Thinking about buying locally and buying sustainably, and that it's good for our own health and good for our community is now relatively commonplace, and it was a very exceptional thought not that long ago."
He calls the shift from unhealthy tobacco to healthy local foods "a delightful turnaround" that has put the Central Appalachian region near the front of the curve nationally in the local foods movement.
"There's the old thing about crisis creates opportunity," Flaccavento said.Now, institutions like Virginia Tech are getting involved, he said, and government has the opportunity to steer farm policy toward healthier eating, family farms and sustainable food production.
"I think farmers that were apprehensive about taking the plunge into something for the first two or three years of those trends are now seeing that those have been around six or seven years," Flaccavento said. "I think that bodes well that over time, more and more farmers are going to make the transition."
The Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission grew out of the tobacco industry settlements, not the federal buyout. But officials said it's played a big role in helping Southwest Virginia transition from tobacco to other things.
It was Virginia's decision, with the money received from the settlement, to set up a $1 billion endowment to fund economic revitalization grants.
Over its five-year history, the commission has made $288 million in payments to farmers, said Stephanie Kim, its director of finance. The commission also has awarded $729 million in economic revitalization grants. The fund balance is now at $536 million.
Spent in such areas as technology, education and economic development, the money is aimed at diversifying the economy in the tobacco-growing regions of Southwest and Southside Virginia.
The commission's current chairman, Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said the region would be in a much worse position right now if not for the tobacco commission.
"A lot of projects wouldn't have happened," Kilgore said. "We wouldn't have broadband."
The development of broadband infrastructure in the past few years has been touted for its importance in drawing several high-tech employers to rural Southwest Virginia that would otherwise have been unable to locate in the region.
And although the largest portion of the money has gone toward traditional economic development projects, the commission has funded some initiatives aimed at laying the groundwork for new aspects of the region's economy to develop in the future.
Among the commission-funded projects in Southwest Virginia is Heartwood, a regional tourism center designed to send visitors into the mountains to experience the region's cultural heritage.
Under construction in
Abingdon and on the Internet, Heartwood is supposed to create a framework for extending the success of the Crooked Road, the region's music heritage trail, to the entire region.
Another project underway, with a recent focus on research and development, is the building of five energy research centers, in an effort to bring clean energy research and the associated product development and manufacturing to the region.
The commission also has pledged $25 million for a medical school in Washington County, in hopes of making Abingdon a hub of medical research and development, as well as job creation.
McCall, who serves on the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said even some tobacco farmers have mixed feelings about their crop now that times have changed and America has become more health conscious.
"I know there's a big push to get people to quit smoking. You don't want to be detrimental to people's health, but on the other side, tobacco has been a major cash crop in Washington County," McCall said. "There's a lot of things in Washington County that were funded by tobacco money, and you could look at the Tobacco Commission, that's tobacco money, and look at all the things it's benefited, things we're doing now. So tobacco is here, it's been here, and we're still benefiting from it."
Jessee Fore, a fifth-generation tobacco farmer in the community of Washington Springs, no longer makes his primary living growing tobacco.
But he said it remains an important part of his heritage and a way to earn some extra cash. This year he raised about two acres with his grandfather, John Fore, and brought his 6-year-old twins, Dalton and Madelyn, out in the field to help.
The twins are about the size that John Fore was when he first started helping his father and grandfather in the fields in the 1930s. In a Depression-era black and white photograph, John Fore, now 86, is pictured as a young boy, his head just peeking over the top of the tobacco plants where he stands in the field with his brothers.
Standing on a flat-bed wagon driving two horses is his father, and beside the field is his grandfather.
He was raised on tobacco money, John Fore said, and that's how he raised his family. His son, Joe, raised four children and sent two to college on the tobacco money grown in Washington County.
His grandson, Jessee Fore, works for an ambulance service to provide for his family, but said the time he spends with his grandfather in the field is important, too.
"When they done the buyout, I quit raising it and then I put out two acres this year just to supplement my income," he said. "I'd much rather be out here on the farm than having to work."
He said he has no intention of letting the tobacco tradition die out.
And John Fore, a tobacco farmer his whole life, said he'll keep growing it as long as he's able.
"Tobacco's been good to me," John Fore said, admiring the big, thick leaves that he grew this year with his grandson's help.
"That's pretty, isn't it? he said. "That's a good leaf."
He said he'll raise a crop next year , too, even if he has to crawl through the field to do it.
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