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Tobacco: North Carolina's Bright Leaf Now Tattered

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SMITHFIELD — The bright leaf -- it is a state symbol that now seems withered and faded. So much of North Carolina's heritage is wrapped up in tobacco. But now it is as if the industry is unraveling. How did it all go so wrong?

Despite attacks on the industry, tobacco still means much to many North Carolina towns.

A country tune and a small town. Tobacco town. The signs are everywhere. Here in Smithfield, the bright leaf is in the air and on the air.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is the air castle of the east," Carl Lamm intones to his radio audience. "In Smithfield, North Carolina, 1270 on your radio dial. Good afternoon again. We're here on Town and Country Time, and we hope you'll sell your tobacco here on this grand old market this year."

Lamm knows tobacco as well as he knows the microphone in front of him.

"For more than 50 years now I've been associated with the Smithfield Tobacco Market," he says.

Lamm is the market's sales supervisor.

"It's the mainstay. Every stalk of tobacco will generate about $100 in taxes," he says. "The question is what have those officials done with all that money, broke up there. It does look like somebody would step up and be a champion for these people, you know."

"You know, WMPM (the radio station call letters) stood at one time for World's Most Progressive Market," Lamm continues, "alluding to the tobacco market."

The soul of tobacco today is the small towns like Smithfield, where farmers and warehouses struggle to stay in business. But that small town portrait is just part of the big picture.

Three years ago, the United States was producing more than a billion pounds of flue-cured tobacco. Since then, the government has deliberately cut that production in half. Think of it this way: You work 40 hours a week. Then you are told you can only put in 20 hours, but you still have to pay all the bills. It not only stings, but cuts at the very soul of the small tobacco town.

"Only thing we're concerned about is growing tobacco," says Ed Stephenson, an auctioneer and businessman. "I got 53 percent less money."

"It's no more than if you're in the rental business, you got six houses. They tell you can't rent but three of them," Stephenson says. "But you still got to make it just like everything was cake and ice cream."

Stephenson turned his tobacco warehouse into a flea market filled with furniture, antiques and power tools. "If it brings in money during the off-season, well, so be it. My banker is very happy about it!"

"We're glad to have this and thank the Lord for it, but June 30, it will be time to get ready to sell tobacco. When you talk about us doing other things sure we are, we're survivors!" Stephenson declares. "We've been surviving. We are surviving, but we want to thrive. Just like any other business, we want to thrive."

But it is not thriving. Three years ago, Stephenson's warehouse was selling 14 million pounds of tobacco. Today, it sells about 7 million.

Three years ago, the Smithfield market was selling $50 million worth of tobacco. Today, it sells $40 million. At least Smithfield has a tobacco market. All of Wendell's warehouses are closed.

"It was the most modern building in Wendell," Billy Sherron recalls. "And everybody came to see it. It was just great, to look at this great warehouse."

Now Sherron stands alone among the cobwebs, listening to a building seemingly breathing its last as the empty structure creaks and groans. There's another sound: Sherron's heart breaking.

"I never dreamed that it would be possible -- that the tobacco market in Wendell would go out of business. It's more like a vengeance of those who are so determined to get rid of it. They just dwell on it and harp on it," he says. Would you believe the tobacco sold in one warehouse generates over $75 million worth of taxes every year? Some say tobacco is the most unfairly taxed product in our economy.

"In the last three years, we have had an 18 percent cut in tobacco allotments. It's devastating to people. I've farmed all my life. It's a part of North Carolina heritage that's hurting." -->

Dennis Durham cranks the tractor engine. It drives him -- this life, the farm. It has been in his family for generations.

"It's always been a dream," he says. "But the crop is slipping away. It's rough right now."

Three years ago, Durham farmed 200 acres of tobacco. Now it is 100 acres.

"The demand is just not there, and we have an oversupply," Durham says. "I worry almost constantly. Somewhere along the line, you just have to have faith that you're going to survive it."

"If it's something you love to do, you don't want to get out of it unless you have to," he says.

So Durham hangs on -- like the old tobacco barn his granddaddy built. There are not many left. And those that remain are relics, symbols of something from the past -- the barns, the warehouses, the farmers. They are still there, a way of life not yet dead.

"They are the backbone of America, I guarantee you that," Lamm says. "Maybe somewhere out there, maybe somebody tuned in (to our radio station) today will have a little better appreciation of our farming folks. But as the country song says, 'You go your way and I'll go mine 'cause time changes everything...'"

What is happening in North Carolina is also happening around the country. The United States used to produce half of the world's flue-cured tobacco. Now, it produces only about 5 percent.


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