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Column: Tobacco growers are on bittersweet journey

I know I have seen the look before. On the face of a father as he gives away his daughter. On the face of teachers as they wave goodbye to a seasoned crop of youngsters. On the face of graduates as they toss their caps in the air and march out into the world.

It was what I saw on the faces and in the eyes of flue-cured tobacco growers the other day. I first heard the word “bittersweet” used when I asked tobacco grower Keith Parrish how he felt about the buyout. Parrish has spent long hours walking the halls of Congress. People, including congressmen, were quick to acknowledge his hard work in making the buyout happen. To a farmer, it was like they were thinking the same bittersweet thoughts about what the tobacco buyout meant to them. They all used variations of the word bittersweet for good reason.

After years of false starts, numerous bills and alliances that made strange bedfellows, Congress passed a $10.1 billion tobacco buyout as part of a major rewrite of corporate tax law. Payments will be made over 10 years.

The buyout ends an outdated program that began in the Great Depression and was dying on the vine like a field infected with black shank. Since 1997, growers had lost 50 percent of their quota. Things needed to change. If they had not, growers were facing another 30 percent cut next year.

Growers were willing to accept the change, whatever it took. “Give us the buyout and you can decide the bells and whistles ,” grower Pender Sharp of Wilson County, N.C., told me last year. For most growers, that included accepting FDA regulation of tobacco.

In many circles, it was understood that FDA regulation would have to be linked to the tobacco buyout in order for it to pass in the Senate.

As the tobacco buyout came out of the House-Senate conference report, it did not contain FDA regulation. Health advocates, such as Scott Ballin of AHEAD, said that while he was glad that growers were getting long-needed help, the Congress had missed an opportunity to regulate cigarettes. Health groups, including Tobacco Free Kids, had made alliances with tobacco grower groups and supported the buyout. Ballin said the issue was too important to go away.

Growers and those in Congress pointed out “money was left on the table” by not including FDA regulation, but noted “what is done is done.” The alternative to not passing the buyout would have been “a total train wreck.”

The weeklong political back and forth leading up to the passage of the tobacco buyout resembled a two-minute drill in a football game. A minimum of four press conferences speaks to what was at stake or considered at stake over the passage or failure of the tobacco buyout.

The first volley included talk of the bill dying because it didn’t contain FDA regulation.

In the Congress, those in leadership pointed to the importance of U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., getting the tobacco buyout bill attached to the larger corporate tax bill.

Erskine Bowles, the former chief of staff in the Clinton administration who’s running against Burr in the race for the U.S. Senate, came to the Hill to lobby 24 Democratic senators for passage of the bill, with or without FDA regulation.

Both candidates received accolades for their roles.

As few as a couple of days after its passage on Oct. 11, growers were beginning to notice what it did not contain. In a press conference of growers supporting Bowles, growers pointed out that inspection of foreign tobacco was left out of the legislation.

The rhetoric of growers was as strong as any politician facing election. “It’s a good day that we are going to received promised compensation,” said Andy Evans of Wayne County, N.C. “It’s a sad day to me in rural, conservative North Carolina, when Teddy Kennedy stood up for me stronger than some of our representatives did.”

The buyout will be a windfall to a few growers, of course, because of economies of size. There are more small growers than large growers, however. It will allow some to retire with “dignity.”

Next year will be a whole new ballgame. Again, it’s important to note that tobacco growers, from here on out, will be in a free market.

That gets us back to the word bittersweet.

To understand the full connotation of the word, look out your car window at the number of old tobacco barns standing as you drive past a field the next time you’re in tobacco country. Few if any of these barns are torn down, no matter their condition. The reason, I’m thinking right now, is these barns cured the economic well-being of entire areas for a long time. It’s hard to let go.

Tobacco growers performed honest, hard labor that provided the economic foundation of states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. We’re talking about farmers who were largely caught up in the issues surrounding their crop, who fought for years and then fought for the dignity to be compensated for their years of work.

Tobacco is an emotional crop. Go out in a field of green tobacco and press the leaves. Your hands will feel the sap of a crop that gets in your blood.

Walking into the Brightleaf-Riverside Tobacco Warehouse in Smithfield, N.C., on the final auction of the season, the bittersweet aroma of cured tobacco hit me in the face. Inside, I heard the bittersweet words of tobacco farmers. The words reflected the looks on their faces. I have seen similar looks on the faces people who are moving from one phase of life to another.

The difference here is, tobacco farmers for the first time in 70 years move from a way of life out into the wide world of free markets. I now realize the reason for the bittersweet victory of a buyout amid the uncertainties of the future.


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