Saturday, November 03, 2007

PBS story on growing local, eating local left out points about tobacco in Appalachia

The PBS weekly magazine program "Now" did a long story last night on Appalachian Sustainable Development of Abingdon, Va., and its efforts to get tobacco growers to raise organic vegetables in southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina. "We're trying to create more social equity, with environmental conservation, and at the same time make money," said ASD's Anthony Flaccavento.

The story captured the effort well, but may have created some misperceptions about tobacco in Appalachia. It noted the 2004 repeal of the federal tobacco program, but referred only to its price supports, not the quotas that limited each farm's production. Now that the quotas are gone, some farmers are raising more tobacco, and though cigarette companies pay them less, they make up for it in volume and no longer having to pay to lease other landowners' quotas. None of that was mentioned as farmer Allyn Horton said, "The prices we're takin' for tobacco now are prices my granddaddy got 30, 40 years ago."

Correspondent David Brancaccio intoned, "The economics of tobacco are generally dismal around here these days." Not if you can get land. While Horton and other farmers may not be able to do that, it's easier in the Ridge and Valley section of Appalachia, where they live, than in the Cumberland Plateau and Highland Rim regions of Appalachia to the west, in Kentucky and Tennessee. There was evidence of that later in the piece, which reported that Horton had cut back his tobacco production to 25 acres from 40. Such big tracts are rare in the regions to the west, where small farmers have been hit harder by the repeal of the program.

Aside from its tobacco slip-ups, the story is worth watching as a lesson in how culture and agriculture can change and how the "local food" movement can take root. "I think people are completely ignorant of where a lot of their food comes from," organic farmer Steve Hopp said. Hopp and his wife, novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and their daughter Camille Kingsolver recently published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book about the family's recent year in which they ate only what they raised themselves or bought from local producers. To watch the report, click here. For the interview with Flaccavento, click here.

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