Tobacco farmer’s last crop in the works
Published 3:39 pm Friday, January 12, 2024
By JOEL SAMS, Kentucky Living Magazine/Special to the Bowling Green Daily News
“Shorty, it looks good hanging there,” Randy London says, eyeing the carpets of burley tobacco in the barn rafters overhead.
“Yep,” Shorty says. “Yep.”
Shorty, whose full name is Emerencio Morales De Leon, takes off his straw hat and sits on a wooden beam on the barn’s dirt floor, rubbing a hand over the sodden red bandanna that covers his head. His shirt and long pants are soaked as well. The other three members of the four-man crew have gone to the cooler for Gatorade, but Shorty sits, saving his strength.
It’s mid-afternoon in September, and the crew has been moving tobacco since daylight —about 20,000 pounds of plants, speared through their stalks in groups of five or six per stick. The men started in the field, loading the sticks onto wagons, and now they’re housing the tobacco in the barn. Two men climb into the rafters and perch bowlegged, straddling empty space. The other two stand on the ground, forming a chain to pass the heavy sticks upward and hang them crossways.
Randy hooks up the tractor to pull in another wagon. There’s time for one more load today; maybe two. The crew will finish up tomorrow morning. As days shorten and the air turns cold, the crop will cure in the dark, a near-constant breeze swirling up from hard-packed dirt to rustle among drying leaves.
Randy, who serves as a director on the Farmers RECC board, grew his first tobacco crop as a Future Farmers of America project in 1967, and he’s grown one every year since. After 57 consecutive crops, he says this will be his last.
“I’ve said that for the last four or five years now,” he says, watching a final load go into what the London family calls the Bale Farm barn near Hiseville. “But I think I’ve come to the point in my life now where this is going to wind it up.”
Randy’s son, Matt, is skeptical. “I think Mama will believe that on the Fourth of July next year,” he says.
The last tobacco crop, whenever that is, won’t mean the end of farming for the London family. With investments in cattle, hay, corn and soybeans, as well as acreage leased to other farmers, the Londons have achieved on a family scale what the tobacco buyout intended for the state 20 years ago — a smooth transition from a single dominant crop to a diversified farm economy.
And yet, the end of the tobacco era is poignant. With the benefit of hindsight, Kentucky farmers who have stopped growing tobacco often remember it with affection. “Back-breaking work,” they often say — before they talk about what they miss.
They remember the way the crop brought together whole families — parents and siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins, working together at every stage, from burning plant beds in the spring to stripping stalks in the winter. They speak with pride about local schools, churches and businesses built with tobacco money. Much more than a crop, tobacco has been a way of life.
As Matt London’s truck winds along narrow country roads that crisscross more than 800 acres of family land in Barren County, he points out the house where his Dad lived as a kid, the building that used to serve as the farm’s milk parlor and a tobacco barn built during World War II.
“Our family has produced tobacco for centuries— not decades, but centuries — in this area and in this community and on these farms,” he says.
Tobacco became America’s first major export after John Rolfe grew his first crop in the new settlement of Jamestown in 1612. In Kentucky, tobacco has been a staple since the late 1700s. The modern tobacco economy, however, was created in 1938, when a Depression-era federal policy made tobacco uniquely profitable, even on a small acreage, creating unprecedented prosperity for small farmers.
A product of the New Deal, the federal tobacco price support program carefully controlled the amount of burley tobacco farmers produced and guaranteed minimum market prices. This meant that even the smallest farms could depend on income every year that would put food on the table, presents under the Christmas tree and children on the path to college. Will Snell, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky, says the program was one of the most successful agricultural policy events in American history — “the ideal program for that small family farm.”
At the program’s inception, individual growers were assigned a tobacco quota, also called tobacco base, which entitled them to grow the crop. The amount they could produce was limited, first by acres, then by pounds. Restricting production did not always result in an acceptably high price, however. In years when the market price dipped below the guaranteed price, the government stepped in. In Kentucky, the program was overseen by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative.
It worked like this: Each year, tobacco that did not sell at an acceptably high market price would be purchased by the growers’ cooperative at the government-guaranteed support price, using money loaned by the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, which in turn borrowed money from the U.S. Treasury. These funds had to be repaid with interest. The cooperative would store the tobacco until it could be resold at a higher price, and those funds would pay off the CCC loan, with interest.
The carefully calibrated program offered small farmers security, dependable income and better quality of life. It must have been easy to imagine it would last forever.
My sunrise drive to Randy London’s Barren County farm could have been a painting of September. The trees, burnt orange like matchheads, scratched a blue slate sky. Geese flew in formation through morning fog over cornfields. A golden tobacco field flashed by my window — one glance, then it was gone.
“My grandfather grew tobacco, and my dad grew tobacco, and now I’m growing tobacco, and it looks like I might be at the end of the line,” Randy told me on the phone a few weeks before I visited his farm. “I miss my uncles, my dad and my brother — they’re all gone now. It’s just me out here, and our family, by ourselves, just trying to carry on the tradition.”
I thought about that, watching Randy’s face as the last load went into the Bale Farm barn. Randy London’s last tobacco crop. Maybe.
My own family grew tobacco in Woodford County from the 1880s until the early 2000s, but I never worked in the crop. My dad was against it, feeling keenly the moral tension between working in tobacco and telling his children not to smoke. I never saw it that way. The old men who’d grown it were in the winter of their lives, and tobacco was their elegy. Robbie, B.R., Raymond — they’re all gone now. Dad, too.
But you can still stand in a tobacco barn and see the light pouring through the gaps in the wood, dust suspended. You can look up into the rafters and remember how that choking fragrance used to smell. You can still feel the cool breeze on your face. It blows where it will, and you don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes.
The beginning of the end — and a new beginning
Even before the federal tobacco program officially ended, it had been under attack for decades. Some critics cast it as a taxpayer subsidy for tobacco farmers, and others claimed the guaranteed market price put U.S. growers at a competitive disadvantage.
Congress addressed the first criticism with a 1982 law that imposed a fee on tobacco sales. Shared between growers and buyers, this “no-net-cost” assessment was deposited into an escrow account, where it was used to ensure the federal government recovered the full amount of principal and interest on loans to tobacco cooperatives. The second criticism, competitive disadvantage under the government-imposed structure, proved the most serious for the tobacco program’s future. After enjoying a near-monopoly on burley tobacco in the early days, many U.S. tobacco farmers faced cost pressures from foreign growers who had improved the quality of their product.
At the same time, U.S. labor costs spiked as local labor dried up and farmers became dependent on migrant labor through the H-2A visa program. By contrast, University of Kentucky agricultural economist Will Snell says, in some African countries in the early 2000s, labor cost as little as $1 a day.
Policymakers had another challenge: to create an equitable end to the program while compensating owners and growers who had come to rely on tobacco quota as an asset, since farmland with tobacco quota attached was far more valuable for sale or lease than farmland without.
“They bought land; over time, that land had increased in value due to the tobacco base, and they were afraid the government would all of a sudden take the quota program away,” Snell says. “Not only would they lose income opportunities from renting out that quota, but they may have an asset or land values that would come down.”
In his role at UK, Snell spent a decade working with policymakers to address the problem. “There was all this debate,” he says. “‘Should we try to Band-Aid and fix the program, or should we just basically try to get a buyout?’”
Signed by President George W. Bush in 2004, The Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act ended both the federal tobacco marketing quota and the price support system. As part of that law, the Tobacco Transition Payment Program provided payments to tobacco quota holders and tobacco producers over a period of 10 years beginning in 2005.
In his statement to the press following buyout, Snell said the legislation was likely the most significant piece of agricultural policy since the beginning of the tobacco program in the 1930s. “While the buyout will inject nearly $2.5 billion into Kentucky’s local and rural economies over the next 10 years, it will undoubtedly change the landscape of the Kentucky agricultural economy forever,” he wrote.
Twenty years later, fewer farms are growing tobacco — their numbers fell from 59,373 in 1992 to 2,618 in 2017, the most recent year for which census data is available—and production shifted to the western part of the state. When the 2022 Census of Agriculture numbers are released in February, Snell says, “we may be below 1,000 farms growing the crop.” Even as the number of farmers growing tobacco plummeted, the crop still ranked eighth in cash receipts for Kentucky agriculture in 2022.
One of the goals of the buyout was to help farmers transition to other crops—and it worked. Where tobacco used to account for 25–30% of Kentucky’s agricultural cash receipts, the crop now makes up just about 3%—but total agriculture sales are higher than ever, at a record $8.3 billion in 2022. Production has shifted to poultry, grains and beef cattle, along with an explosion over the last 20 years in fruits and vegetables, organic meat and farmers markets.
“I don’t think there’s a state out there that’s gone through as big of a structural change as Kentucky agriculture has over the past couple of decades,” Snell says. “Even in the midst of this loss of tobacco income, we’ve been able to increase overall agricultural income because of some of these other enterprises.”
But the memory of tobacco is still alive and well, says former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who was an intern in U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office in 2004 as the buyout made its way through Washington.
“I’ve traveled to all 120 counties six times each as commissioner, and when you mention you worked in tobacco, if people are aged 40 or older, everyone starts nodding their head, because they’re like, ‘I worked in it, too,’ ” he says.