Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Small tobacco farmers making an exit from rural Kentucky county

Dean and Steve Prewitt, the last contract tobacco farmers in Whitley Co., Ky., are putting up what is likely their last tobacco crop. "I'm surprised by what has happened," Dean Prewitt said to Trent Knuckles at "Used to be, you could leave Williamsburg and drive to Corbin on this road and we could count 20 to 25 tobacco crops that you could see just along the edge of the road. Now they are all gone. It's kind of sad when you think about it. ... The younger generation just ain't going to do it. It's hard work."

The reports that 15 years ago, Whitley County farmers produced about 800,000 lbs. of burley tobacco, much of it high quality. Today, it will produce about 10,000 lbs., all from the Prewitts' farm. Whitley County has never been a big agricultural county but with the Cumberland River and some places on the Cumberland Plateau it was a good place to raise tobacco – until the federal program of quotas and price supports was removed, bringing economies of scale to the business of growing tobacco and moving it west, where larger tracts were available. "It's a case of the bigger producers here in Kentucky are getting bigger and the smaller producers are just getting out of it completely," University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Agent Phil Meeks said to the News-Journal. "There are other things people are turning to, other things to diversify, but none of them really, alone, replace tobacco. ... There have been a lot of families that, once they quit tobacco, just got out of farming altogether."

Whitley County's largest tobacco producer has switched his farm to another crop: corn for his feeder calf operation. Jim Clawson grew roughly 100,000 lbs. of tobacco a year for about 37 years on a 45-acre farm. He didn't plant any  this year because he could not come to an agreement with either Phillip Morris or rival R.J. Reynolds on a contract. "I'm very happy with not growing it. I would probably never go back again to raising tobacco under any circumstances," Clawson said. "This tobacco thing is just not good anymore."

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