Originally created 07/04/05

Many farmers start to abandon tobacco



DENTON, Ga. - Any day now, James Emory Tate plans to pull the remaining three acres of tobacco from the gray dirt of his farm in south Georgia.

It will be the first time in nearly 70 years that the green leaves that had been the bread-and-butter crop for the past couple of generations of Tates won't be harvested on the farm.

"This is it. This will be our last year," Mr. Tate said. "I know of three growers that's quitting right around me and possibly some more."

Mr. Tate, 54, and his 28-year-old son had planned to farm tobacco another year despite the end of decades-old federal controls on production and price known as "the quota system."

But an onslaught of rain that drowned the plants early in the season, and the appearance of the tomato spotted wilt virus that killed off other plants, convinced them that it's no longer worth the money to stay in the crop.

Without a quota system, farmers are contracting directly with cigarette companies for prices 50-60 cents a pound less, Mr. Tate said.

Like more than half of Georgia's 1,000 farmers estimated to quit the crop this year, the Tates are leaving behind tobacco, a plant that once rivaled cotton as the state's leading cash commodity.

"It's a whole new world now," said J. Michael Moore, a tobacco agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "We have electricity, fuel, chemicals; all have taken tremendous jumps in price during the course of producing this crop and curing it."

In exchange for the end of the quota system, the government gave farmers a $10 billion buyout to be paid during the next decade by the tobacco industry - a payout that is in addition to the settlement the industry is paying to state governments to reimburse them for smoking-related medical expenses.

Mr. Tate's grandfather bought the 120-acre farm in Jeff Davis County in the late 1930s around the same time that the federal government established the price-support system.

As the farm was handed down from father to son through the years, tobacco growing changed significantly, as did the way cigarettes were viewed.

In the 1960s, when Mr. Tate was young, most people in the South Georgia county grew at least some tobacco. Tobacco auctions brought families out like festivals do, and stores opened their doors wide the next day.

"That's what always bought the new pickups," Mr. Tate said about the money made from selling the dried leaves.

That was also the decade when the U.S. surgeon general released medical research tying smoking to lung cancer, and health warnings began to be printed on cigarette boxes.

Since then, smoking rates have dropped from 42 percent to 22 percent.

The drop in smoking, competition from tobacco growers in foreign countries and the emergence of the tomato spotted wilt virus were all reasons for Mr. Tate to plan on plowing his remaining plants into the ground.

The Tates plan to turn their attention to corn, hay, soybeans and peanuts.

The Tates estimated they were able to make $400 to $500 an acre with a good crop before the selling prices dropped when quota system ended. That's compared with the $50 an acre they expect to make on the corn.