For nearly a century farming in Western North Carolina revolved around tobacco. Rows of burley tobacco were commonplace throughout the region, and for generations farmers relied on this cash crop each season. That all changed with the passage of the tobacco buyout in 2004. A new report from ASAP’s Local Food Research Center finds that the region has all but lost tobacco but local food has emerged as a promising new direction for mountain farmers.
As recently as 1992, over half of the farms in the most tobacco dependent counties of WNC reported growing tobacco. Since then nearly 4,000 farmers have had to find other crops or stop farming altogether. “Tobacco was the driving force for the culture, economy, and landscape of the region for most of the last century. It speaks to the resilience of farmers and communities that we are seeing new opportunities emerge in local food,” said Charlie Jackson, ASAP director and one of the authors of the new report.
The report, “The End of Tobacco and the Rise of Local Food in Western North Carolina,” analyzed data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture to examine the region’s remarkable transition away from tobacco and toward food production and local sales. The findings are striking. Tobacco is no longer an important crop and in its place farmers are growing food for local markets. Though the region did experience a dramatic loss of farms with the end of tobacco, the census period just after the 2004 buyout shows the region’s farm loss leveled off with a rate far less than the state and US loss rates.