RALEIGH, N.C. — A renewed push for a federally-funded tobacco buyout plan is topping the agenda at the annual meeting of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina.
The meeting under way at the State Fairgrounds Friday includes tobacco growers and North Carolina's political leaders.
"I know that there's one thing that is on all of your minds today and it's on the top of my agenda in the United States Senate," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Dole told the crowd she is working on a buyout deal, but said in the past, the votes in the U.S. House and Senate have not been there.
She cautioned that bringing up the word tobacco is "radioactive" in a room of lawmakers and gaining support for the idea is difficult.
A buyout would pay farmers to leave the federal program that sets price and production controls. It is considered the key issues among tobacco farmers today.
"I'm trying to give you all a picture of exactly what the situation is," Dole said. "I believe in the reality check."
Tobacco was once a centerpiece of North Carolina's economy. Now, it is an industry in sharp decline.
"It won't be too long before people like us will be out of business," tobacco grower Fred Lamm said. "There are many farmers that are hanging on for one more year. Each year they're hanging on for one more year."
"We're at a point where we're desperate and something has to happen," tobacco grower Keith Parrish said.
Relief could come in the form of a buyout of tobacco quotas.
"We've worked for 50 years building up those tobacco allotments to earn this buyout. We've earned them," tobacco grower Eldrige Westbrook said. "It's crucial to the farm families."
A buyout is so crucial, tobacco growers will not give up on congressional action.
"I think words used in the headlines were things like 'It's stalled, it's dead. Buyout is dead.' Don't you believe it. Don't you believe it," buyout negotiator Karen Lockwood said.
Part of the discussion is likely to be who should fund the buyout: tobacco companies, the government, or both.
Some tobacco companies support a buyout that is coupled with FDA regulation others do not.
Dole said lawmakers and farmers who support the buyout are going to have to come up with innovative ways to overcome the obstacles.