Local News

North Carolina Tobacco Farmers on the Decline

Posted February 2, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST

— Even though tobacco still brings home more money per acre than any other crop, the number of North Carolina farmers growing it is dropping.

Like every profession, tobacco farming is undergoing some significant changes. The larger farms are growing and buying up land while many small farmers are being forced to find another profession.

An old barn is a reminder of a simpler time, but many will not be standing much longer. Some land just northwest of Wilson is prime territory for development.

O.D. Winstead and his family recently sold their farm to let the city grow through.

"The heirs felt that it would be more profitable to sell it than to keep it simply because none of the children were interested in farming," said Winstead.

Across the state, farmers are facing a tough assignment. Adapt, grow or give up.

The newUSDAcensus says that since 1992, nearly one in three tobacco farmers has retired or taken a new job. Large farms are buying land while small farms are selling out.

"We've experienced, if you will, a Wal-Mart syndrome where the big get bigger, and the less efficient just go by the wayside, and agriculture is no different. Agriculture is big business, and each family farm operates it as a big business," said tobacco farmer Pender Sharp.

Growers say there is money to be made, but only if the next generation is willing to adapt to changing markets.

Today's farmers, including James Sharp, are better educated and better trained than ever.

He just graduated fromN.C. Stateand is already making a name for himself selling produce.

"I think there is a future in farming. The main thing is being diversified. If we can diversify our farms, we do have a future," said Sharp.

Farmers are hesitant to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. They just see it as a trend.

Only two percent of Americans are listed as full-time occupational farmers.