If you drive through the hills and along the river in Madison County, North Carolina, you’ll see a community in transition. Some fields are fallow, others are filled with hay, and around the bend, farmers are growing fruits and vegetables while chickens, pigs, and sheep graze on open pasture.
Just a few decades ago, Ross Young, the Extension Director at the Madison County Cooperative Extension, saw a very different scene—nearly every piece of flat land was packed with rows of tobacco.
“When you drove through the county, you saw tobacco on every road, every community, on every spot,” he says. “You could not have driven out a road that was over two miles long and not see a tobacco field.”
Madison County once had over 2000 family farms growing Burley tobacco. Young says that as late as the 1990s, more than half of the county’s population—about 10,000 out of 20,000 people—were involved with growing the crop. For generations, selling tobacco at auction paid for property taxes, Christmas presents, and the necessities of life that couldn’t be made or grown at home.
Growing tobacco was a communal effort. Families had their own plots, but they also helped each other through the long process of planting, harvesting, and hanging tobacco to dry. Ross Young remembers what it was like. His family grew tobacco in Madison County, alongside six other tobacco farmers on his road who all helped each other through the season.
“We didn’t own a tractor, so my neighbor would come and we trade off work. He would come and plow our land with the tractor and then we used a mule to do the rest of it. When it came time to hang tobacco, obviously we were in his barn helping him hang tobacco and no money changed hands. It was just part of what we did,” Young says.
Hanging tobacco in a barn to dry is part of the on-farm preparation required by the markets and it required a lot of hands-on work, which led to long nights in the tobacco barn working alongside neighbors and family.
“You’re doing that until 11:00 o’clock at night with your neighbors. You’re telling stories and the kids are growing up just hearing your elders and your dad and your brothers tell these stories,” he says.
The heyday of tobacco was coming to a close, and if you look at the history of the federal government’s involvement with the crop, you can see how the rise and fall of tobacco farming impacted communities.
The Great Depression hit tobacco farmers hard and by 1938 the market was flooded with excess tobacco. The tobacco companies wouldn’t buy it all, so Congress established a quota system that limited the acreage and the number of pounds of tobacco a farm could produce. This stabilized the tobacco market and made growing the crop more profitable for farmers for decades to come.
Over the next 60 years, researchers learned about the health effects of tobacco use, and in 2004, Congress got the federal government out of the tobacco industry. The Fair and Equitable Tobacco Act—known as the tobacco buyout—ended the quotas.
Farmers got some help to make the transition. Quota holders and tobacco growers were compensated over the next ten years based on how many pounds they produced in the past. That money came from tobacco companies, not taxpayers. In 2014, those buyout payments ended, and agriculture in Western North Carolina changed forever.
Many older farmers retired. Others dropped tobacco and grew hay, increased their livestock herds, transitioned to Christmas trees, or grew produce. The Madison County Cooperative Extension stepped up to help tobacco farmers transition, and to provide resources for new farmers who were starting farms in the area.
“We worked hard in our office to encourage innovation and creativity. We held alternative ag seminars, everything from goats, to llamas, to cabbage, to broccoli,” Young says.
New farmers across the region stepped in to turn fallow fields into diversified farms. Some multigenerational tobacco families shifted their operations to focus on local food and agritourism.
Joe Deal, of Deal Family Farms in Franklin, N.C. is one of those former tobacco farmers. His father started farming in 1976, raising vegetables and burley tobacco. In 2004, the Deals stopped growing the farm’s “moneymaker,” as Joe describes the tobacco crop. In 2005, he started the farm’s first corn maze as a way to diversify the farm to make up for the lack of income from tobacco.
“A lot of folks don’t realize just how important that crop was, but we decided after the buyout that we wanted to grow something that’s more healthy,” Deal says.
Rather than hauling thousands of pounds of tobacco to an auction each fall, the Deal Family sells their tomatoes and squash directly to consumers at their farm stand and through regional groceries. Growing produce instead of tobacco has allowed Joe to supply his community with fresh vegetables and sustain his passion for farming in a post-tobacco economy.
“I love to farm and I love being outside,” he says. “Growing a crop from the time you put a seed in the soil until you harvest the crop, to me, that’s there’s nothing more satisfying. I can’t see myself not farming, truthfully.”
Next week we’ll visit two tobacco barns in Madison County—one that holds memories of seasons long gone, and one that was revitalized into a hub of local food and agritourism.
Learn more about the history and future of agriculture in Western North Carolina, and read ASAP’s research on the region’s transition from tobacco to local food, at www.asapconnections.org
Re-run aired: December 28, 2020