Farmers' future in jeopardy as cash crop falters; Regulations and increased health awareness threaten tobacco growers; Foreign imports now a threat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Ephraigm Smith is a bear of a man, with big, meaty hands worn rough, dirt on them that no amount of soap will remove.

The farmer's hands are his tools, and they show their use.

He comes from a long line of men and women who drew their living from the land. His ancestors have been in Pitt County since the mid-1700s, first tapping vast tracts of pine trees for their valuable turpentine, then cultivating row crops such as cotton and corn and soybeans on the many acres in the Chicod community.

Smith, 56, recalled that cotton was king for a while here, as it was in much of the southeastern United States.

But around the turn of the century, even while farmers worked to keep weeds out of their crops, a weed was poised to take over the throne.

King tobacco crept into virtually every aspect of the county's economy and culture.

Children followed their parents into the fields, priming, looping and storing the leaf. Entire families, even those that didn't have a square foot of land to call their own, made a living planting and harvesting the crop.

Every year, the auctioneer's call lured thousands from the county's far reaches into warehouses in Greenville and Farmville. Growers, cash in hand from the morning's sale, patronized local merchants and often purchased enough supplies to last until the next tobacco season.

Life was symbiotic: A good year for the tobacco farmer meant a good year for the merchant, and vice versa.

Greenville itself lived and breathed with the golden leaf. Whistles from processing plants called the populace to work, sent them home to lunch, then called them back again.

Through this century, tobacco pumped billions of dollars into the economy, provided a livelihood for thousands, and shaped and sustained a way of life. But in the latter portion of the century, urbanization, increased awareness about tobacco's health effects, legal sanctions and government regulation chipped away at that lifestyle. And as Pitt County residents head into the 21st century, they are left wondering if tobacco will continue to be a force in their lives.

Last month, Smith stood in an expansive field of tobacco that announces its various stages of maturity in hues ranging from chartreuse to dark green. It is an apropos setting as he mulls the future of the inedible leaf that nourished several generations.

"As far as raising tobacco," Smith lamented after some thought, "I wouldn't encourage a young person, with the uncertainty there is now, to start raising tobacco."

Broken dreams

Tobacco began to supplant white cotton bolls as the dominant scenery around the eastern Carolina countryside after farmers realized that it bested even the profitable cotton as a cash crop even though it's expensive to grow and requires about 250 man-hours of labor per acre.

"The tobacco has been the mainstay of this family for generations," Smith said.

The story of his life, and his family's, is inextricably bound up in the heavy, broad leaves, he said. They came to symbolize the chance for prosperity, or at least something more than mere survival eked out out in the fields.

"[Tobacco] was all you had," Smith said. "That was the only game in town."

Where he grew up, there was no Hardee's or McDonald's where a school lad could flip burgers and earn cash for clothes and fun money.

"That's the way I got the spending money," Smith said of his tobacco work.

Shortly after World War II, "My daddy still had two wood-burning [barns]," Smith said.

Somebody had to monitor the fire around the clock to assure the temperature was right for curing the green tobacco. From late grammar school on, Smith was that sentinel.

"You stayed up all night," he said. "What they did, they made a bunk at the tobacco barn." Every couple of hours he would check on the barns, catching a few winks of sleep between rounds.

"They call them the good old days," Smith said wryly.

It was hard work, but the cured, golden leaves looked like greenbacks to the farm families that depended on them, said Smith, who keeps receipts dating to 1900 from tobacco sold at markets in Greenville.

But times change.

A study by James W. Kleckley, an economist and associate director for Planning and Institutional Research at East Carolina University, shows tobacco accounted for about 8 percent of the county's economy in the mid-1990s.

"Twenty years ago, farming of tobacco was probably 20 percent or more of the economy," he said. "It's just not as important as it once was in Pitt County."

Social mores have exerted downward pressure on tobacco's cultural and economic influence, said Mitch Smith, director of the Pitt County Agricultural Extension office.

The surgeon general's warning that began appearing on cigarette packs in 1969 "played a part in it," Smith said. "The anti-smoking sentiment definitely takes a toll."

It would be difficult to find someone who isn't aware of the links between tobacco use and diseases such as cancer and emphysema, said Dr. John Morrow, director of the Pitt County Public Health Department.

"I think, generally, they're certainly more aware of the health effects of tobacco," Morrow said. "I think that has contributed to decreased use."

Pitt County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eugene James, himself a tobacco scion, decries those who would enforce their anti-smoking opinion on others through legislation and regulation.

"Those people that produce it, like myself, they know that's freedom of choice," he said. Even if the leaf is driven out of Pitt County, North Carolina or the United States, the lure of tobacco will persist, he said.

"Whether it's grown in Pitt County or Brazil, it's going to be grown," James said.

Court decisions related to tobacco's health effects have taken a bite out of the industry as well.

Cigarettes went up about 45 cents a pack at most stores earlier this year as a result of tobacco companies marking up wholesale prices to offset their $206 billion settlement with 46 states, including North Carolina.

The leaf's status is even threatened from overseas by exporting countries as divergent as Brazil and Zimbabwe where environmental standards and wages are both lower than in the United States, Mitch Smith said.

He said Brazil is the No. 1 exporter of tobacco, which it sells for 40 cents a pound about what the leaf brought here in the mid-1940s, before adjusting for inflation.

Though the quality of the tobacco does not match the American product, the Brazilian variety is rapidly improving, Smith said.

Instability in Asia and the Pacific Rim, where many of U.S. tobacco's customers are located, is snuffing the lit end of the export cigarette.

"Most of [the tobacco production] is happening in developing countries that can't purchase the U.S.'s top cigarette," while they export them like crazy, Smith said.

A phenomenon called "agricultural illiteracy" also hurts tobacco, Smith said. As an area like Pitt County becomes more urban, the average resident's connection to agricultural production falls, he said.

In general, people don't realize Pitt is a top 10 county in North Carolina for cash farm receipts and No. 4 in terms of row crop production, he said.

Not to mention No. 1 in tobacco, Smith said. "You don't have the public support for it you once had."

A way of life

Throughout the years since it was first cultivated in Pitt County, tobacco has paid many a bill for residents. Its influence is visible almost everywhere.

The seal of the city of Greenville bears the image of a tobacco leaf, and so does the seal that hangs on the wall behind the Pitt County Board of Commissioners.

That board's chairman, James, 75, grew up on a tobacco farm and still owns tobacco-producing land.

James recalls the sentiment expressed by his son, Paul: "He said, 'Daddy, tobacco sent me to school.'" Paul James is now a physician who serves as director of rural health for the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"There is no question about that, he paid his way through college [with tobacco]," his father said. "He worked in tobacco up until he went to medical school."

Pitt County families and neighbors came together to plant, tend, harvest and sell the leaf. It was more than a plant: It was a lifeline grasped by the community's collective hand.

The ramifications extended off the farm and into the streets of the city.

Herbert Wilkerson Sr., 80, former owner of Globe Hardware, grew up in Greenville on Eighth Street. As a boy in the 1930s, he worked in a shoe store a few blocks from the tobacco warehouses where the leaf was sold and the factories where it was processed.

Wilkerson recalls the impact tobacco had on the area.

"The whole economy was built on tobacco," he said flatly.

He remembered the smell of the cured gold leaf at the warehouses on opening day the biggest day of the year.

"The best thing in the world was the opening because it smelled like money," Wilkerson said.

Every summer, almost all the farmers in the area would charge their purchases during the year and pay off the bill after selling their tobacco, Wilkerson recalled.

"In the fall, our business would quadruple," Wilkerson said. One tobacco farmer would bring in his children and shoe them all while in town auctioning off his cured leaf, he said.

Herb Wilkerson Jr., 45, took over the Fifth Street hardware store from his father.

"It's kind of petered out since I've been working here, even in 20 years," he said.

Back before the son took over from his father, merchants would display their wares on the sidewalks the day the tobacco markets opened, hoping to snag some of the cash floating around town.

"All I can tell, back when I was a kid, it was like that, in the '50s and '60s," Wilkerson Jr. said.

Again, times have changed.

"It's entirely different. We're not even dependent on it anymore," his father said of the tobacco money.

End of an era

The elder Wilkerson does not foresee a return to tobacco's salad days.

"I don't see any possible future for it," he said. Tobacco's prominence as a thread in the county's cultural and economic fabric, he said, has been badly undermined "by all these lawsuits billions of dollars."

Even North Carolina, the largest producer of tobacco in the world, is part of the problem now, he said.

"Now we've got our hands out too. We want our share," Wilkerson said..

James' view was a little more sanguine.

"My gut feeling is that Pitt County will continue to produce tobacco," he said. "It's part of our culture."

But he acknowledged the changes that have taken place.

"Pitt County has left the rural area and gone to the urban," he said.

Economist Kleckley called the change in economic forces "the natural evolution of things."

Given the leaf's current tenuous position, a diversified economic base, founded on industries other than tobacco processing, "saved our lives," he said.

"It's not as much as tobacco getting smaller, but everything is growing up around us," he said.

He said East Carolina University, its medical school and associated businesses account for the largest economic force now "without a doubt no contest."

Besides the higher education institutions and burgeoning medical community, manufacturing industries play an increasing role, and Greenville has over the years become a regional hub for retail sales, Kleckley said.

The 8 percent that tobacco contributed to the money pie is about what the old Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical plant accounted for at the time of Kleckley's study, he said.

"In terms of [tobacco] driving the Pitt County economy, it hasn't happened for a while," he said.

Ephraigm Smith said the field hands that growers used to rely on have left the farm life for work in factories.

Migrant Hispanics have taken their place further distancing native Pitt Countians from tobacco's cultural influence.

Thirty years ago, he said finally, about 10 tobacco farmers lived in his neighborhood; there's probably not more than two or three now.

In years to come, as tobacco continues to shrink as a proportion of the economic pie, the most visible link to that part of the county's past might be silent monuments preserved for future generations, like Greenville's block of the five erstwhile tobacco warehouses and processing plants that have been relegated to service on the National Register of Historic Places.

Alvin Taylor, 70, recalled Greenville back when the railroad overpass on Charles Boulevard marked the city's southern limit.

These factories, where the tobacco was processed and put in hogsheads for shipping, were a focal point of the city.

A whistle would sound telling workers to come to work, leave for lunch and head home at quitting time.

"No bigger than the town was, you could hear them all over the town," said Taylor, former managing editor of The Daily Reflector.

Each whistle had a different sound, he recalled, and some people could pick out which factory was calling.

Taylor, like so many others, is clear about the leaf's role in his life.

"In the first place, I doubt I'd have gone to college at all without that tobacco money," he said.

Though the handwriting is on the barn wall, Taylor says he is not saddened by the crop's diminishing role.

"I just accept change," he said, "and I don't know that tobacco's going to disappear."

The era ahead

Though the weed has lost some of its clout, Mitch Smith is quick to point out that Pitt is still the largest tobacco-producing county in the world, with nearly 32 million pounds harvested here last season on 13,384 acres. At an average price of $1.77 per pound, the commodity had a value of more than $53.6 million.

Still, the federal allotment or "quota," the amount of tobacco that farmers can grow based on consumer demands projected by tobacco companies, has been cut by about a third over the past two years.

"That will cost our producers about $9 million," Smith said. That effect can be doubled to $18 million for the total impact on the Pitt County economy, he said.

This year, a pared down 11,182 acres will bring the tobacco forth.

Ephraigm Smith has 40 acres dedicated to tobacco this season, down 55 from previous years.

The amount of tobacco allotted for Pitt County this year is worth $45,214,119, down from $53,669,940 in 1998.

Fortunately, if momentum is up in other sectors of the economy, the area may not notice tobacco's effect, said John Chaffee, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission.

Price supports, which guarantee a minimum price per pound, have kept tobacco income stable since the 1930s and helped make it the most dependable cash crop for many farmers.

Other crops likely won't ever supplant tobacco.

Cotton is down to about 47 cents per pound and soybeans fetch $4 a bushel, Ephraigm Smith said. "They won't take the place of tobacco," he said.

According to the Pitt County Cooperative Extension Service, in terms of economic returns, it would take seven acres of cotton to replace one acre of tobacco.

Mitch Smith said he does not expect the quota to continue its decline. He believes as economies in Asia and elsewhere stabilize, demand for the leaf should increase again.

"The expectation is there will be some rebound in the years to come," he said.

Rebound or not, Ephraigm Smith plans on hanging in for a while longer.

"I'm 56 years old," he said. "I'll probably give tobacco a few more years ..."

But that desire, perhaps sustained in large measure through inertia imparted by his tobacco legacy, doesn't extend to his son, Sterling.

"In 1991, I kind of saw the handwriting on the wall, and I put in four hog houses," Smith said. His son tends to the swine during breaks from his studies at N.C. State University, where he's earning a degree in agriculture.

True to his farm roots, the younger Smith likes husbanding the hogs.

"But I can't see him raising tobacco," his father said.

Though his son might be the first generation to eschew the tobacco, Smith isn't terribly disappointed by that development. However, he admits to being a little disheartened, not only because his son might step out of his father's footsteps, but for the generations of farmers across the county who are watching a lifestyle fade into the past.

"It's sad for any kind of small farm," he said.

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