Virginia tobacco crops no longer cashing in
In fields just west of Courtland, tall, straight stalks reach skyward.
Huge, dark green leaves bow gently in the breeze. In some fields, pale yellow flowers appear on spires above the plants.
The highway stretches on, and so do the fields.
Once king in Virginia, it has built farming empires, supported generations of families, sent children to college and provided a good living for those able to meet its constant demands.
But things are changing for Virginia's tobacco growers. Government regulations have increased. Demand is down. Prices are slipping.
``Our daddy used to say that tobacco was better than peanuts,'' said George B. Dianis, one of three brothers who operate a farm near Emporia. ``But nobody likes tobacco anymore. The government doesn't like it. Nobody likes tobacco. It's a bad word.''
In the past five years, tobacco acres in Virginia have been slashed almost in half. Tobacco farmers -- most of them second-, third-, even fourth-generation -- have had their quotas cut by 40 percent or more. Quotas are the amounts farmers are allowed to grow based on market demand.
Tobacco is on the decline. From 1996 to 2000, the world production of flue-cured tobacco fell from 10.5 billion pounds to 8.9 billion, and U.S. exports dropped from 362.4 million pounds to 254.3 million.
To make up for their loss of income -- a loss they say they can't help but feel, despite supports from the states' master settlement with tobacco companies - farmers are trying new ventures. Some are planting different row crops or growing produce, while others are even selling plants and vegetables at roadside stands and farmers' markets.
``I'm willing to try anything,'' said Paul ``Sonny'' Holloway, a second-generation tobacco grower who farms with his brother in Freeman, about 30 miles outside Emporia.
``We tried cucumbers, and we tried peppers,'' brother Randy Holloway said. ``But it takes so much manpower. I don't know what we're going to do.''
The brothers this year planted two acres of butter beans. They hope to bring in a bean-picking machine owned by Virginia Tech to harvest the crop.
Adding to their woes are new government regulations requiring tobacco-curing barns to be reworked so that indirect heat is used in the curing process rather than the old method of direct heat from LP gas.
It costs farmers $25,000 or more to rework a barn to the new standards. A new barn can run $40,000.
The new technique reduces the concentration of ``tobacco-specific nitrosamines'' in cured tobacco. The compounds are suspected to cause cancer in humans.
``Nitrosamines -- it took me about a year to learn how to say it,'' Dianis said.
To avoid the cost of the barns, some tobacco farmers pre-sell or contract their crops to tobacco companies that provide curing barns. The farmers provide the crop and labor.
And there's a lot of labor involved.
Tobacco has been Virginia's biggest agricultural commodity since it was first planted by Jamestown colonists. Tobacco production started when John Rolfe acquired seeds from Spanish colonies. The first shipments of Virginia-grown tobacco reached England in 1613.
Traditionally grown across the state in counties west of Hampton Roads, the crop today claims less than a quarter of the acreage that it did a century ago. In 1899, 184,334 acres of tobacco were harvested in Virginia. In 1999, just 38,300 acres were harvested.
The tobacco year starts in winter, when seeds are planted in greenhouses. The months in between, until harvest time in late summer, requires solid, hard work, farmers say.
``The work starts in late February,'' Sonny Holloway said. ``Then, it's four or five weeks of clipping the plants to stout 'em up. It takes a lot of management.''
By the time the plants are in the field at the end of April or the first of May, insects have set in. The farmers have to spray for cutworms and budworms.
There's always fear of blue mold.
``It was everywhere this year,'' Sonny Holloway said, ``because of the humid, wet spring.''
By midsummer, the plants have to be ``topped'' -- or have their flowers removed -- so the leaves will continue to develop. All the work is done by hand. Farmers near Emporia bring Mexican laborers in to help with the tedious tasks.
The farmers provide housing in addition to the laborers' wages.
About 6 most mornings, George C. ``Corky'' Holloway Jr., of Jarratt and no relation to Paul and Randy, stops for coffee at the ``Slip-In'' convenience store, where he checks with other area farmers.
Only 12 tobacco farmers remain in Greensville County, he said. Ten years ago, every farmer in the county had at least one tobacco field.
George Holloway has been growing tobacco for as long as he can remember. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather grew it before him.
But Holloway's 76 acres of tobacco have been cut to 43. Equipment is sitting unused. There's no market to resell it. Tobacco barns are empty, or they're used to store sweet potatoes in the fall.
``I'm growing cantaloupes, squash, peppers,'' he said. ``I've picked up vegetables to help fill in. What does a 43 percent cut in tobacco acreage amount to? A 43 percent cut in your income. You've got to try to do something.''
Holloway estimates that about a quarter of his farm's income came from produce last year.
As for the future of the farm that's been in his family for so many years, he said, ``I got kids, but I don't encourage them. They may keep the farm, but I don't think they'll work it.''
And tobacco's future?
Stan Duffer , a tobacco expert in the Virginia Department of Agriculture, doesn't agree with Holloway.
The outlook is dismal compared to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago, Duffer said. But there's too much research going on to call it hopeless.
The new barns are just one example of innovations that someday may improve the outlook for tobacco. Going back to the mid-1970s, tobacco had been cured using LP gas, he said.
Tobacco specific nitrosamines don't exist in green tobacco. They are suspected to have been produced during the old LP-gas curing process. Heat-exchange systems in the new barns prevent exposure of the tobacco to combustion gases and byproducts.
Because so little research has been done, tobacco companies aren't saying that the new process actually reduces carcinogens, Duffer said.
But ``responsible product stewardship advocates that technologies to reduce nitrosamine levels in tobacco be pursued and implemented as proven effective and commercially practicable,'' according to a report on the Flue Cured Tobacco Cooperative Web site.
``Nitrosamines have been identified as a potential carcinogen,'' said Duffer. ``By removing this one, can you really say that the cigarette is safer? It's a responsible thing to do, but they can't advertise a safer cigarette.''
Research also is ongoing to produce pharmaceuticals from tobacco. CropTech, a Blacksburg-based company, for example, uses genetically engineered tobacco to make proteins used as human disease therapies.
Meanwhile, the barns are causing financial headaches for tobacco farmers, and could be the primary reason for the decline of the traditional tobacco auctions.
Once, almost every tobacco town had an auction house. Today, few remain as many farmers have contracted their tobacco to companies that provide new barns equipped with heat exchangers.
The tobacco settlement helped farmers some, Duffer said. In negotiations between tobacco-producing states and tobacco companies, $5.1 billion was allocated over 12 years to help tobacco farmers offset their losses. Money also has been set aside for economic development in tobacco-producing communities.
``A lot of folks would have been in pretty dire circumstances without those payments,'' Duffer said.
Growing tobacco is tough, the Holloway brothers from Freemand say. Yet, they have no plans to change.
``I ain't got to punch a time clock,'' Randy Holloway said. ``We're our own boss.''
Three years ago, the brothers were growing about 80 acres of tobacco. This year, they planted half that much.
They needed a tractor this year. A used machine was all they could afford.
Randy's wife wanted a new couch. She'll not get it this year.
``You can't go off and buy what you want,'' Sonny Holloway said. ``You hold off.''
The harvest has just begun. They'll make do with what they have. Tobacco is what they know best.