The federal tobacco buyout program has officially ended. The last of the tobacco buyout checks are being distributed this month.
The program, officially known as the Tobacco Transition Payment Program (TTPP), was started to help farmers transition from the Depression-era quota system to the free market.
North Carolina has fared pretty well during the transition:
- Farmers and producers in the state collected more than one-third of the $9.6 billion in buyout payments.
- There is more tobacco grown in the state today than when the tobacco buy-out program began.
Many farmers simply grew more as the price-per-acre went down. But Stanley Hughes didn't do that. Instead, he reinvented himself as an organic tobacco farmer in order to survive the volatile industry.
Hughes, 66, owns Pine Knot Farms, on the Orange/Person County line. He and his workers have spent this month bringing in the last of the tobacco out of the fields and placing it in the curing barns, where fans dry it out.
Hughes has lived in Hurdle Mills all of his life. His grandfather purchased the land more than 100 years ago – in 1912. Tobacco has been grown here ever since. But it hasn’t been easy.
“The only thing about farming, you can keep a job, work all the time and stay broke," said Hughes. But it helps if you get support from a wife like Linda Leach.
“I’m the one that’s the wind beneath his wings, the salt on his pork, and the sugar in his Kool Aid," Leach said, followed by a big laugh.
Even though Hughes is a third generation farmer, he has also worked jobs off the farm, mostly in manufacturing, to make ends meet.
The price of U.S. tobacco peaked in the mid 1990s and then began falling off. Cigarette taxes went up, the number of smokers decreased and tobacco was cheaper abroad, in countries like Brazil and Zimbabwe.
Congress was years away from a tobacco buyout. Hughes had to do something. He took a workshop and learned he could get a higher price for his tobacco if it was grown organically.
“We started off with one acre, then about five acres before I went totally organic," said Hughes.
By 2000, he switched all the way over. Everything he raised – from collard greens to tobacco – was organic.
“Well, so far we done marketed about almost 20,000 pounds. We’ve got probably another 25,000-30,000 more pounds we’ll market," said Hughes.
I asked Hughes if he thought it was odd that some people would rather smoke organic tobacco opposed to regular tobacco. He said it was not odd at all.
"They want to die healthy!” he said.
Hughes sells all his tobacco to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, an independent operating company of Reynolds American. Santa Fe manufactures the American Spirit brand, out of Oxford. It advertises its product as "100% Additive-Free Natural Tobacco."
“He’s one of the people that diversified," said Archie Hart, taking a closer look at all the tobacco being pulled in on wagons.
Archie Hart is with the NC Department of Agriculture. He’s very familiar with Hughes’ operation.
"He’s known as the collards man, he also does sweet potatoes, he also does organic tobacco," said Hart. "So, he was one of the people you can look at and say, he took advantage of the buyout and he diversified. And he has an income stream coming in as a result of that."
Hart says his office has been working hard to help African American farmers, like Hughes, keep their land, after the buyout.
“Also, he will probably be more successful at maintaining and keeping his land. And again, the bottom line is making sure these farmers keep their land," said Hart.
Hughes, like many tobacco farmers, requested all of his tobacco buyout money in one lump sum. He had a lot of farm debt to pay-off.
Today, Pine Knot Farms is a busy place. Hughes was named the 2013 Farmer of the Year by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. His collard greens have been featured in Gourmet Magazine. Folks are always calling, sending emails, wanting to visit. Hughes is baffled.
"I don’t know, ain’t nothing I think I’m doing great or exciting," said Hughes. "Just working.”