The fading glory of Burley: Once a staple cash crop, only a handful of tobacco fields are still hanging on
This year, Bill Holbrook will start drawing on the “old man pension” — as this local tobacco farmer likes to refer to Social Security. At 66 years old, Holbrook is one of the older, if not the oldest, tobacco growers left in Haywood County.
Although looking at the spry, tanned farmer, you’d never guess it. He just finished a September of harvesting and now his 6-acre tobacco crop hangs curing in his old, wooden barn on his farm near Bethel.
Several weeks from now when the tobacco is ready, Holbrook and whoever he can hire to help him, will begin separating the leaves from the stalks and readying the crop for market. But, Holbrook, has to ask himself how many more seasons does he have left in him. He began working in the tobacco fields helping his father when he was 16. He remembers his grandfather cutting off part of a tobacco leaf to chew on while working on the farm.
Yet, soon, he and his wife will have to make a decision: how much longer can they, or do they want to, grow tobacco and continue the labor intensive cycle of planting, tending, harvesting and preparing the plant for market?
Tobacco has been a fixture in Holbrook’s fields for more than 30 years.
“I’d like to continue to farm,” Holbrook said. “But, that’s something we’ll have to talk about.”
And, unlike the familial chain of tobacco growers that came before him, Holbrook’s three children and four grandchildren will most likely not carry on the practice.
Yet, his situation isn’t unique. Soon, the rest of his tobacco-growing peers in Haywood County — at least what’s left of them — will follow in his aging footsteps. It’s a shift that could leave Haywood County, once consisting of a patchwork of small tobacco fields, without a single grower.
“I don’t know any young tobacco farmers,” Holbrook said.
In the past decade, the number of tobacco farms in the county plummeted from nearly 300 to about 10.
A shift in federal policy was responsible for the dramatic decrease in tobacco farmers during the early 2000s; old age may finish off the rest.
Although Macon County was never a tobacco growing Mecca like Haywood, Madison and Buncombe counties, agriculture officials there say it is already void of a tobacco farm.
A Burley cigarette
The type of tobacco grown by Holbrook and others in the mountainous regions of Western North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee is called Burley tobacco. It carries a neutral taste and is usually mixed with its counterpart, the sweeter flue-cured tobacco, to make what is called an American blend of cigarette.
After harvest, Burley tobacco is left to cure in the open air of a barn for several weeks. It also is typically harvested and prepared by hand — a trait that makes it more labor intensive to grow. Flue-cured growers, whose farms are typically on lower-lying, flat land, have benefited from farming mechanization.
But, as Holbrook pointed out, the way he harvests and prepares Burley tobacco today on his picturesque farm along the Upper Pigeon River is very similar to the methods his grandfather employed in the early 1900s, using two trusty tools: the tobacco knife to cut the stalk and a cone-shaped tool called a spud to pierce and secure the stalk when its hung upside down to cure in the barn.
Except today, migrant workers have replaced the chattering barns of local, rural women and men folk who used to prepare the leaves after the tobacco was dried.
“Americans don’t work on farms,” said Don Smart, who has a tobacco farm in the Crabtree area of Haywood County. “They’ll smoke cigarettes and drink but won’t work on a farm.”
Smart said he now uses primarily Latino laborers to help him with his 45-acre tobacco crop in Haywood County. And not only does his labor come from other nationalities, much of the tobacco he grows is shipped abroad as well. He claims restrictions on smoking and taxes on cigarettes in the United States are the enemy of the tobacco grower.
However, after watching many other farmers drop their tobacco crop, Smart, now 60 years old, said he still makes a good living growing it. And he said he wouldn’t be contemplating retirement anytime soon, if he can help it.
“Farmers don’t retire, we just fade away,” Smart said. “I’ll retire the day I die.”
Currently, Smart and his brother operate several farms in the region, producing dairy, beef, corn and other vegetables, but he prefers growing tobacco — a crop he’s been cultivating for more than 40 years.
“It’s the best show in town if you’re a farmer,” Smart said. “It beats the devil out of growing vegetables.”
In a good year, Smart can make $5,000 to $6,000 dollars per acre selling his tobacco to the Southwestern Tobacco Company, a middle-man leaf dealer which in turn sells the product to tobacco giants such as Phillip Morris, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the makers of Camel and Winston brands.
Death of the quota
But in a bad year it can be a different story, which is why in many counties across the Southern Appalachians, like Haywood and Madison in, tobacco farms are a dying breed. The exodus came after the federal government ended the tobacco quota system in 2004.
Relying on the old-fashioned law of supply-and-demand, the quota system kept tobacco prices high by matching supply to the anticipated demand of cigarette makers each year. Tobacco farmers grew only what was needed, and collectively banded together to set their own prices.
At the start of the growing season, farmers were assigned allotments that determined how many acres they could plant. If they wanted to plant more than that, they had to buy or lease additional allotments from other farmers who weren’t going to use all of theirs — but the total amount of Burley tobacco being brought to market any given year wouldn’t exceed the market demand.
When the quota system ended, farmers could plant as much they wanted. It was good for big industrial farms with huge economies of scale. But for the smaller mountain tobacco farmer with just an acre or two in cultivation, they simply couldn’t compete.
That acre or two of tobacco had once been a significant source of income.
“It put me through college,” said Tony McGaha, whose family once grew tobacco on less than an acre of land. McGaha now works as an agent with the Haywood County Cooperative Extension Office.
When the government ended the quota system, it ushered in a free-market system tailored to larger farms, and many small mountain farmers decided it was time to get out of the business.
Along with uncertainty over the quota changes, many were already looking for an out because of other factors such as mounting labor costs and old age, McGaha said.
Furthermore, since the buyout, stricter regulations on smoking, less land available for agriculture and fewer young people going in to farming, have exacerbated the trend.
Although McGaha said a Haywood County without a tobacco grower is a distinct possibility, other agriculture experts don’t believe that day will ever come.
“Our nation is pretty much founded on tobacco,” said Martha Mills, who works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Waynesville. “I don’t think it will ever be extinct.”
Mills said she knows at least one farmer who decided to return to growing tobacco after leaving it for year. She was once a tobacco farmer herself in Haywood County, along with her husband.
Now, Mills wonders about the prospects of returning tobacco to their family farm. She said fertilizer would be more expensive now, as would labor costs in contrast to a time when everyone helped each other out with the harvest.
But she also worries her 18-year-old daughter might grow up missing out on the opportunity to understand the plant.
“I have said to my husband it would be good for her to know what it is about,” she said.