Farmers trade tobacco for tomatoes

Aug. 26, 2013 @ 10:15 AM

Most Saturdays, shoppers at the South Durham Farmers’ Market can peruse the eye-catching floral arrangements and a wide array of produce from McAdams Farm, but two decades ago, 40 acres of the McAdams Farm would have been dedicated to a single crop – tobacco. The McAdams family grew some vegetables, too, but just enough to feed the family and livestock. Tobacco was the plant that paid the bills, as it had since the family moved to their Efland farm in 1885.

In the second half of the 19th century, the McAdams family and many others in North Carolina saw an opportunity to finally grow a cash crop that could tolerate their dry, clay-like soil. Cigarettes had become fashionable in Europe and tobacco was popular among Civil War veterans who had received it as part of their war rations. Tobacco quickly became a huge boon to the state’s economy, propelling the growth and wealth of Durham, along with that of growers and manufacturers, like Washington Duke and his son.

Tobacco remains a critical source of revenue – North Carolina ranks first in the United States for tobacco production with an estimated $7 billion economic impact on the state in 2011 – but over the past decade, many farmers have decided to exit the tobacco market.

Declining domestic smoking rates and cheaper tobacco imports convinced many local farmers to diversify their fields, and eventually led to the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004, known as the Tobacco Buyout. The law ended all government support for tobacco farmers, including quotas.

Originally put into place in 1938, quotas provided price support for tobacco farmers, who were flooding the market with too much product. But starting in the 1960s, the U.S. government set increasingly smaller quotas and provided fewer price support loans to farmers due to the waning demand for tobacco.

The Tobacco Buyout helped tobacco farmers transition their businesses off the quota system by enacting the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, which has distributed annual payments that will ultimately total $10 billion to farmers over ten years. Next year, farmers will receive their last payment. 

For most of the smaller farms, like the ones at our market, this has meant transitioning from growing only tobacco. McAdams Farm, Vollmer Farm and Hillsborough Cheese Co. were all once tobacco farms that have completely dropped their one-time moneymaker. For Karen and Howard McAdams, the transition required that they quickly learn how to grow new in-demand crops, purchase the necessary equipment (e.g., tractors and a freezer) and install new irrigation systems. 

Some farmers at our market continue to grow tobacco, like Pine Knot Farm -- one of the first farms to have their tobacco certified organic. Brooks Farm and Parker Farm also have tobacco in their fields, but it is no longer their sole source of revenue.

Fortunately for locavores, this sort of crop diversification has unleashed a bounty of fresh produce, meats, and cheeses, and has spawned new outlets for selling those products, like the South Durham Farmers’ Market. Come see us this Saturday and experience the abundance firsthand.

Elizabeth Zander is market manager of the South Durham Farmers Market.