Farmers Grow Nicotine-Free Tobacco
BELZONI, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi, a pioneer in making cigarette makers pay billions of dollars for smoking-related illnesses, is now home to a crop of tobacco that the developer touts as being virtually nicotine-free.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Danny Pearson, whose Mississippi Delta farmland is dotted with the big-leaf plant at a time when the state is collecting on a $4 billion settlement with the cigarette industry.
Pearson, one of six Delta farmers growing the test crop, said his decision to plant the tobacco was simply one of economics.
``I'm trying to do this to keep my farm together. I'm trying to survive,'' said Pearson, who farms cotton and soybeans on his 800 acres in Humphreys County.
Vector Tobacco plans to introduce a cigarette made from genetically modified tobacco that it also claims has reduced the amount of cancer-causing nitrosamines.
Vector's decision to grow the product in Mississippi and three other nontraditional tobacco-producing states was based on the soil characteristics and climate found in those areas, said company spokesman Paul Caminiti.
``It may be ironic on some grand scale, but in some ways it makes a lot of sense,'' Caminiti said. In 1994, Mississippi was the first to file a state lawsuit seeking to recoup millions from tobacco companies for smokers' Medicaid bills.
About 5,000 acres of the new tobacco have been planted in Mississippi, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Chad Mohamed is among those farming the about 300 acres in Mississippi, devoting 20 acres of his farm to the tobacco.
Mohamed said he sees the new crop as an opportunity to offset the depressed market prices of his cotton and soybeans.
``We were guaranteed a profit margin,'' Mohamed said. ``One acre of tobacco will generate more than seven acres of high-yielding cotton.''
Mohamed, a nonsmoker, said his conscience was eased somewhat knowing that he apparently is growing a safer product.
Rickey Gray, counsel to state Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell, said the office has no authority over the growth of tobacco.
``I don't think that we will really find ourselves in an acceptable position of discouraging the farming of any agricultural product that is legal,'' Gray said.
Vector is supplying the seedlings for this first crop. Farmers receive a contract growers fee when the plants are harvested this fall. If the crop meets expectations, farmers will grow next year's crop without assistance and sell to Vector for $1.50 per pound.
Vector hopes to market the new cigarettes in 2002 under the name of Omni Free. Vector Tobacco, owned by Vector Group Ltd., is a sister company to the Liggett Group, the smallest of the major tobacco companies.
Mohamed said handling the tobacco has been trying because it is labor-intensive.
``We're averaging 76 man-hours an acre just in the planting. It will take a good 50 man-hours per acre for harvest,'' he said.
Mohamed said the tobacco crop is already helping the local economy as farmers hire extra workers.
``We had roughly 22 people working all week that otherwise had no employment, and that's just my operation,'' Mohamed said. ``The other farmers also had a good number of people who might not otherwise be employed.''