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Tobacco Farmers 'Plow' Their Way to the Capitol

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RALEIGH — A three mile long line of 600 tractors crept through lunch time traffic on Hillsborough Street and into downtown Raleigh. The message they carried rattled the windows of the Governor's office at the Capitol and echoed in the halls of the Legislature.

Tractorcade organizer and Johnston County tobacco grower Jimmy Lee says the farmers are not satisfied with what is known as a Phase Two agreement where tobacco companies promise to set up a fund to aid farmers and farm communities.

"I'm just concerned that if the money winds up in the government's control, it will be the same thing as Social Security. When it comes time to distribute it, we are not going to be here," said one farmer.

Originally, half of the Phase One money was earmarked for public health concerns. The other half was to off-set economic losses in tobacco dependent communities resulting from a declining tobacco market.

The farmers assembled their convoy at the state fairgrounds and then made their lumbering way along Hillsborough Street to the heart of downtown, where they circled the state capitol, the governor's mansion and the legislative building.

A few legislators were in town to acknowledge the farmers concerns. But no one knows how the whole General Assembly will deal with the settlement issue.

The farmers want to send a message about division of the Phase One money. Plans call for the money to go to tobacco-dependent communities across the state. The farmers say the money instead should go directly to them, that they are in serious financial straits.

Frank Fowlkes hauled his tractors all the way from Caswell County near the Virginia border. He grows 65 acres of tobacco.

Two years ago, before the quota cuts, he grew 100 acres. Now he says he's struggling to scrape together the payments on the tractor he'll drive in the protest.

"We took a 35 percent cut in our income but we didn't take a 35 percent cut in our debt that we owe; we still owe the same amount," Fowlkes said.

Farmers say half of the Phase One settlement money should go directly into their pockets, to compensate them for their losses, and to fix the quota system.

Although $2.3 billion is at stake, they insist it isn't about money, it's about security.

"We got some problems with the tobacco program we got," says tobacco farmer Jimmy Lee, "and if this is used wisely it can correct those problems for this generation to keep growing tobacco and also the next one."

March 15 is the deadline for a Senate select committee to establish a foundation to receive and distribute the settlement money.

If they fail to meet that deadline, the money would go into the General Fund where legislators would decide how the money is spent.

"I think the people downtown in the General Assembly and the governor's mansion will get the message that we're serious about this and we're not going to leave it up to them to decide our plight in the future as tobacco growers," Lee says.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was in Raleigh early Monday to attend a meeting. At the time of the tractorcade, he had already moved on to an engagement in Goldsboro.

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Dan Wilkinson, Reporter
Rick Armstrong, Photographer
Kay Miller, Web Editor

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