Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tobacco is still dwindling in Kentucky, four years after repeal of federal quotas and price supports

"The small tobacco farms that once formed the backbone of the burley crop are fast disappearing" in Kentucky, reports Chris Kenning of The Courier-Journal. "There are fewer than 6,000 farms growing tobacco, just a fraction of the 46,850 farms that grew burley in 1997." One farmer still in the business is Randy Wade, in photo by Kenning. "Although Kentucky still grows most of the nation's burley tobacco, its acreage has dwindled from 240,000 in 1997 to 69,000 this year."

Tobacco, once the state's leading cash crop, has declined largely because of the 2004 repeal of the Depression-era program of federal quotas and price supports. Now farmers can grow as much as they want -- or can sell to cigarette companies, which exercise more control over the industry by contracting directly with farmers rather than buying at auctions. Scattered auctions are still held.) Other reasons for the decline include "falling demand, rising labor costs, farm consolidations and more children leaving family tobacco farms," Kenning writes for the Louisville newspaper. "The shift is reshaping the agricultural landscape."

"Tobacco is the reason we've so long had a family farm culture when other states had lost it," Dean Wallace, director of the Council on Burley Tobacco, told Kenning, who reports: "Most of those who left tobacco have switched crops, expanded cattle herds, relied on off-farm jobs or retired. Remaining growers are planting more to remain viable, which is shifting production from hilly Eastern Kentucky to the open flatland of the west." (Read more)

Kenning says some tobacco farmers got "matching funds from the state's tobacco settlement;" actually, the matching money comes from the state's share of the national settlement between attorneys general and cigarette companies. Kentucky and North Carolina, the two leading tobacco states, earmarked half their settlement money for the agricultural economy, but there have been big differences in how they have spent it. For a report on that, in a 1.2-megabyte PDF, click here.

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