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Tobacco Farmers Turn To Past For New Future

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ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. — There is no question that North Carolina's tobacco tradition is changing. This year's tobacco crop is expected to be the smallest since 1874.

Some tobacco farmers are turning to the past for a new future.

Debbie Harrell and Gene Stikeleather have a new marriage and a new adventure on the horizon.

They have started Iron Gate Farms, taking an old tobacco field and growing a little bit of excitement.

"When cars and trucks drive by, it is like they come to a screeching halt and say: Is that grapes out there?'" Harrell said.

Harrell and Stikeleather have set up shop in a region known as the "tobacco sack," the heart of tobacco country in Alamance and Caswell counties.

"We just want to keep this piece right here in agriculture," Harrell said. "I've had to use every skill I've ever gained from a job to do this."

Harrell and Stikeleather are part of a small, but growing movement away from tobacco and into grapes. Twenty-five wineries call North Carolina home, and 20 more are on the way.

Iron Gate Farm will be on that list.

"There's just no room for the small tobacco farmers anymore," Stikeleather said. "So we started off with a few acres of grapes. It looked like something might grow here."

Stikeleather and Harrell said they grew up around farms and tobacco.

"You know, back then, I just wanted to get away from it," Harrell said. "Now I want to get back to that particular place."

Their lives have come full circle, like the tobacco industry itself.

A lot of people do not realize it, but before tobacco was ever grown on this land, this was grape-growing country. Grapes date back to 1524 in these parts, the first actively cultivated in the United States.

But just as Harrell and Stikeleather return to their roots, they remember the more recent heritage of this region. Tobacco is part of who they are and will be part of what they sell.

Their wine bottle labels depict tobacco country. Getting the wine in the bottles is what they are waiting on now.

That will take the full circle of the calendar year.

"I know we'll get there sooner or later," Harrell said.


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