Tobacco Farmers Prepare To Vote On Federal Quota System
Posted January 11, 2001 6:00 a.m. EST
JOHNSTON COUNTY — Flue-cured tobacco farmers are voting this week on the program that regulates how much leaf they can produce. Growers will be deciding whether to keep the federal quota system in place for three more years.
The Batten family has lived the tobacco life for five generations near Four Oaks in Johnston County, but the last few years have shaken this tradition. They have watched their federal quota or the amount of leaf they can grow drop by almost 50 percent in just three years, and now that program is up for its renewal referendum.
"This business is a lot tighter and a lot more stressful from a financial standpoint," says farmer Charlie Batten. "For comparison, we have enough irrigation to irrigate 100 percent, and enough equipment to carry an 100-acre crop. We are only using half of those assets with a 45-acre crop."
Many growers like Batten purchased quota or the right to grow more leaf. That quota would become worthless if the referendum were to fail.
The state has a big stake in this vote because 68 percent of flue-cured tobacco is grown in North Carolina. Tobacco leaders expect the vote to pass, but they note many growers are desperately looking for answers to stay in business.
"I think you'll see there are emotional and economic strains associated with that," says Graham Boyd, executive vice-president of the North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association. "Some people want to just react, and part of that reaction is let's do away with the program because I want to grow all of the tobacco I can, in order to, cash flow my operation again."
The program was voted out once before in 1939 and the tobacco community saw prices plummet. The program was voted back in the next year.
Most growers will say the current tobacco program is not perfect, but despite large quota cuts and other challenges, it is better than no program at all.