Skip to comments.Farmers rediscover allure of tobacco No longer subsidized, crop gains acres in U.S.
Posted on 09/20/2007 7:06:29 PM PDT by Eric Blair 2084
Tobacco is back in the American farm belt.
Three years after the federal government stopped subsidizing it, the leafy crop is gaining new popularity among U.S. farmers. Cheaper U.S. tobacco has become competitive as an export, and China, Russia and Mexico, where cigarette sales continue to grow, are eager to buy. Since 2005, U.S. tobacco acreage has risen 20 percent. Fields are now filled with it in places like southern Illinois, which hasn't grown any substantial amounts since the end of World War I.
For decades, Martin Ray Barbre, who farms the lush rolling hills here, was not eligible for federal price supports to grow tobacco under a program dating back to the Depression, making it economically infeasible for him to do so. The same was true for many farmers in 33 other states. Now the tarry plant is the most profitable crop Barbre grows on his 4,200-acre spread.
"If somebody told me seven or eight years ago that I'd be growing tobacco today, I'd say they were crazy," said the gruff 52-year-old farmer, plucking a yellowing leaf from one of his plants and taking a deep smell of the raw, woody aroma.
As laborers from Mexico and Honduras used axes to chop down 6-foot plants and hang them on wooden planks to dry in the sun, Barbre explained the attraction of the crop. Even factoring in higher labor and other costs, he's netting up to $1,800 an acre from his 150 acres of tobacco, compared with $250 an acre from his corn. He credits tobacco with boosting his annual income about 35 percent since he started planting the crop three years ago.
Although corn is flirting with near-record prices at around $4 a bushel, "there's no way corn can get high enough" to compete with tobacco, says Barbre, shaking his head. "There's just too much money in tobacco."
Barbre's profitable tobacco business adds a wrinkle to the debate over the farm bill Congress is preparing to take up. Many farmers say that without the system of subsidies for commodities like corn, cotton and soybeans, they'd be at risk of going under. But critics say the system fosters inefficiency, distorts international trade and supports mainly the wealthiest farmers. Now these critics can point to tobacco as evidence that subsidies are unnecessary.
With tobacco, "we are finding that farming can be done without subsidies," says David Orden, a Virginia Tech professor and agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
For more than 60 years, subsidies were as integral to tobacco farming as rich soil and a damp climate. In 1938, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a New Deal-era law crafted to support the thousands of small farmers of all sorts who had been financially devastated by the Depression.
The law guaranteed tobacco farmers in many states a minimum price for their crops. It allotted quotas to farms that produced tobacco at the time the law was enacted, which dictated how many acres they could plant. Tobacco buyers were penalized for buying from growers without quotas. Growers who didn't own a quota had to buy or rent one from those who did. The system propped up prices and limited production to narrow areas and to plots of land rarely larger than 10 acres.
The system was junked in 2004 through a $9.6 billion buyout of tobacco growers and farmers who owned quotas, with tobacco companies funding the payments. Thousands of tobacco farmers, many reaching retirement age, collected their checks and stopped growing the crop. Some farmers planted strawberries or tried to raise catfish in their farm ponds.
In 2005, tobacco acreage dropped 27 percent from the year earlier, to 297,000 acres. With the government no longer supporting prices, those dropped too, to $1.64 per pound, from $1.98, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Cigarette makers worried that they wouldn't have enough supply.
But predictions from some quarters that tobacco farming was headed for extinction in the U.S. proved incorrect. Today, farmers can grow as much tobacco as they want, wherever they want. Economies of scale have kicked in.
Arnold O'Reilly, for one, figured it made sense to grow even more. Before the buyout, he says, the tobacco he grew on his Hardinsburg, Ky., farm was selling for about $1.98 a pound, but he paid up to 80 cents per pound to rent a quota, knocking down his effective price to as low as $1.18. These days, he says, his tobacco fetches about $1.60 a pound, and there's no quota payment.
"Before the buyout I couldn't expand," he says. As a result, "we weren't competitive on the world market." Today he is growing 120 acres, double the 60 acres he grew just before the buyout. He has invested more than $300,000 in new farming equipment, barns and land. "I'm unlimited in my opportunities," says O'Reilly, 42. "I have nobody that can hold me back now."
Will Snell, a tobacco economist at the University of Kentucky's Department of Agricultural Economics, says it's not uncommon now for tobacco farms to exceed 150 acres. Tobacco production, he says, has shifted to places with large tracts of land where the leaf can be grown more efficiently.
Nationwide, the tobacco crop has been rebounding. Today there are 355,000 acres under cultivation -- still down from the 408,000 acres in 2004, but on the rise. Some farmers reinvested their buyout cash in their tobacco operations. In big tobacco-producing states such as Kentucky, and in smaller ones like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, many tobacco farmers are enjoying renewed prosperity. Tobacco production in Pennsylvania has more than doubled since 2004. In Illinois, production has gone from practically none to at least 1,000 acres.
Tobacco companies are recruiting new farmers and offering financial assistance to farmers who invest in new curing barns, drying racks, greenhouses and machinery. "U.S. tobacco is really the backbone of our blends," says Henry Long, a vice president at Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc. "Our job is to ensure we have a stable supply of U.S. tobacco to meet current and future needs."
N.C. Farmers Add to Tobacco Acreage
N.C. tobacco production is rebounding since a federal quota and price-support program ended in 2004.
Farmers in one of the nation's largest tobacco-producing states this year plowed 164,000 acres for flue-cured tobacco, up from the historic low of 123,000 acres in 2005.
Acreage had dropped as some farmers took buyouts, funded through a federal settlement with tobacco companies.
Tobacco production of nearly 361,000 pounds this year was the highest since 2001, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Production would have been more were it not for drought and heat, said department spokesman Brian Long.
"We're concerned about that, obviously," he said.
The government used to set the annual minimum price for tobacco. In addition, a quota system limited where and how much farmers could grow. Some landowners leased these quotas to growers, which influenced price.
Tobacco fetched $1.50 a pound in 2006 in North Carolina, the last year for which statistics are available. Although the price was lower than in pre-regulatory years, farmers no longer have to factor in the cost for leasing quotas and can realize larger profits, said Scott Bissette, international marketing specialist with the state's agriculture department.
"Prices are less," Bissette said, "Because that quota, that cost component, is no longer in there."
South Carolina has not seen a similar tobacco renaissance. Tobacco acreage dropped since the 2004 buyout, and now hovers at about 23,000 acres, said Tre Coleman, director of the S.C. Tobacco Board. Farmers in that state typically planted about 60,000 acres, he said.
Years Acres Pounds per acre Total pounds (millions) Price per pound 2000 163,000 2,421 394.66 1.79 2001 155,000 2,427 376.2 1.86 2002 162,000 2,089 338.5 1.82 2003 154,000 1,902 292.9 1.86 2004 151,400 2,272 343.98 1.85 2005 123,000 2,227 273.95 1.48 2006 155,000 2,090 323.95 1.50 2007 164,000 2,200 360.8 not available
The Amish, who take no hand outs, are moving into Maryland to grow Tobacco. They have established a few farms in Cecil County. I don’t know if they have penetrated the traditional tobacco growing areas further south. I have not seen them in Anne Arundel County, but the old fields there are getting developed.
I just know it’s a matter of time before the Amish and the Mennonites take over the Indian Casinos.
I wonder if tobacco growing will become socially acceptable again, as with all the tobacco taxes, it is “supporting the state”.
The crop was a major cash crop then, and historically, a major source of trade revenue in colonial times. (Cotton was not the only king in agriculture).
Who decides what is “socially acceptable”?
Now, if only one could actually use the product as God intended somewhere - anywhere......
The first American colony in Jamestown 400 years ago was about to starve to death until (taking a cue from the Native Americans) they discovered the cash crop of tobacco which helped build America.
Of course, if some of the anti tobacco people were around back then, they would have put a quick stop to it.
Great point. That is what the Socialists on the left are going to have to figure out. If you want tobacco taxes to fund your Socialist Utopia of Universal Healthcare and SCHIP and you want the stuff to sell, you are going to have to give the consumers of the product somewhere to go to enjoy it. Otherwise, they won't buy it.
That is what the anti tobacco jihadists want...but the leftist do gooders haven't figured out that their agendas conflict.
Markets work. Who knew?
"What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself. The essence of political freedom is the absence of coercion of one man by his fellow men. The fundamental danger to political freedom is the concentration of power. The existence of a large measure of power in the hands of a relatively few individuals enables them to use it to coerce their fellow men. Preservation of freedom requires either the elimination of power where that is possible, or its dispersal where it cannot be eliminated. It essentially requires a system of checks and balances, like that explicitly incorporated in our Constitution..."
-- Milton Friedman, The New Liberal's Creed: Individual Freedom, Preserving Dissent Are Ultimate Goals," May 18, 1961
I hope he’s running the Celestial Banking system by now.
Somehow I don't think this is what those busybody's had in mind ,but I suppose we now owe them some thanks for removing tobacco farmers from the welfare roles
Friedman’s Supply Side School has dragged a kicking and screaming troglodytic humankind to something resembling a decent human condition.
Now if we could dismantle governments by at least something resembling an exponential factor, we’ll start getting somewhere.
Those Amish again! Trying to kill us off with tobacco now! :-)
I strongly suspect that in the event such succeeded in making tobacco consumption illegal, it would be in short order that the medical community would 'discover' benefits to the consumption thereof, heretofore unheralded, which they would quickly turn to a profit.
Apparently, the consumer saw some benefit by using tobacco, then as today, or the practice would have never become popular.
This is great news for Al Gore, after all “all of his life, he hoed it, chopped it, shredded it, and put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.”
You know as well as I do that the alleged “health” risks were only brought to light during the Third Reich in Germany and then in the US in 1964.
Amazing. In '92 I paid $15 per pound for American Spirit. They got bigger and stopped selling it by the pound. The price almost doubled. Now, with CO taxes, I pay about $57 per pound. Of course that's wayyyy cheaper then buying packaged cigarettes.
I think it's about time for a Boston Tea Party.
Someone has to supply the hookah bars popping up everywhere.
So right that tobacco was a king in agriculture! I find this exciting. Like returning to our roots.
I don’t even want to think about what I spend . I need to quit asap but never seem to find the right time in this crazy house.
Al Gore’s sister died of lung cancer which he blames on her smoking habit. Of course, millions of octogenarians today smoked their whole lives and are still here.
But Al is on a jihad to save the world. Of course, nobody would want to live in the world that he saves.
There have already been recent reports that tobacco smokers have fewer respiratory viral infections. Come to think of it I haven’t had a cold in over 35 years and haven’t had the flu in over 25 years.
The right time isn’t in your house. It’s in your mind. ;^)
I love Milton Friedman! What a wise and knowledgeable man. Fearless and fierce as a free market economist. That quote is a keeper.
Well I guess I will have to think on that ...I want the laser treatment. I am so afraid of gaining weight. But smoking may be worse for me then a little more weight I guess.
I know what you mean. I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
My mother and father-in-law smoked like chimneys for msot of their adult life. They quit, cold turkey, in their 60s and never had emphysema nor cancer.
The truth is that people get lung cancer who have never smoked a cigarette in their lives. Where is the proof, the link, that shows that lung cancer comes from smoking? There may not be any link whatsoever.
The most recent research suggests that carrots cause cancer.
According to the studies which our Gubmint has spent millions on giving our tax dollars to grant junkies in acadamia...
It has been discovered that EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO HAS EVER DIED OF CANCER has eaten carrots.
Things that make you go hmmmmm.
Good night. I’m going to bed.
Thanks for the ping!
About 7 of every 100 smokers gets lung cancer. That's about twice the rate that non-smokers contract it. Not very many either way.
There was a scientific report I read a few years ago which revealed cigarette smoking helped protect the lungs against TB....and ....if you'd already been exposed...it helped to keep the virus encapsulated, which prevents the TB from activating.
That aside, tobacco was used at one time as a wormer for stock.
The problem I see with most of the research is the agenda...which makes it biased from the getgo. Are those 7 smokers out of the 100 ....people who live in industrial areas? Do they have jobs which have exposed them to any other carcinogens? Are those 7 predisposed to having cancer in the first place? You just never know.
Not subsidies, no handouts. The tobacco trade was regulated and farmers were given quotas, not cash.
If this is the definition of subsidies, then Hillary is right and giving back tax money rightfully and lawfully earned by the taxpayer is subsidizing the rich.
“...we now owe them some thanks for removing tobacco farmers from the welfare roles”
You obviously know nothing about raising tobacco if you think tobacco farmers are equal to welfare queens
Here's a statistic that doesn't need any sophisticated research and never gets much press; 100 per 100 people who are born will die.
Friedman is known for his work as a Monetarist. I doubt there is even one time Friedman applied the term "supply side school" to himself or his own work.
Great find. Just goes to show that markets DO work best without interference from ANY level of gubmint... Do I hear a second to the motion to abolish Department of Agriculture????
They drew welfare for decades, didn’t they? That equates to welfare queen in most books I’m aware of... but then getting kicked OFF welfare seems to have done them a whole world of good, hasn’t it? I think we need to do this to ALL farmers and farm corporations... for ALL products, from dairy to corn to hemp or whatever... markets DO work.
I am sure they are there. Someone once told me that if I knew what were in cigarettes I wouldn't smoke. I just lost a very good friend to lung & throat cancer who never smoked a day in his life.
I’d like someone, anyone, to provide documentation showing the number of times (years) that the federal government actually paid out subsidy money to tobacco growers; how many times the market price was low enough to trigger subsidy payments. I’m inclined to believe such occasions were very few.
The morality of authorizing a subsidy program for tobacco growers is one matter, tobacco being a non-essential commodity, and I will not defend it, but as a practical matter the federal government raked in far, far more, by orders of magnitude, in tobacco product excise taxes than it paid out in subsidy payments over all the years that the subsidy program existed.
Remember the expression “40 acres and a mule” that a US Army officer was proposing in the post-civil war years should be the compensation to freed slaves?
The notion of making a living with only 40 acres and a mule came from tobacco farming. If you raise 40 acres of tobacco, you’re going to do *quite* well.
BTW — you’re right about tobacco in colonial times. It was even used as a currency. Without tobacco, there wouldn’t be a United States today.
Hhahaaaaa! Yeah, it's been nuts around here starting about six weeks ago. I roll my own. Found a place out in Hesperia that sells 16 oz bags of "single stick" for 10.99.
Mr.Owl posts on a herpologist site, and keeps having his posts deleted regarding Kalifornia raising the stamp tax for hunting reptiles. The site is probably loaded with Democrats. These idiots don't realize that the increased revenue will just go towards Nanny Pelosi's next face lift!
I've always enjoyed this Patrick Henry story:
but his surpassing powers as an orator were not discovered till, in December, 1763, he argued what is known as the "Parson's cause." This was a suit brought by a minister of the established church in Virginia to recover his salary, which had been fixed at 16,000 pounds of tobacco. A short crop had caused a great advance in its market price, and induced the colonial legislature to pass an act commuting the salaries of the ministers into money at the rate of two pence for a pound of tobacco, which was its former price
I like the American Spirit tobacco as much as the next guy but I was under the impression it was grown in New Mexico, where AS is located. It’s my understanding they buy it from North Carolina. Great stuff but why do I need to pay for NC tobacco to be shipped to NM, then shipped to my retailer?
Under the supply and demand theory, Tobacco then makes food crops cost more by reducing the amount of farmland available. Unless it creates land for farming that otherwise would not be productive.