Virginia tobacco farmers have lived through enormous marketing changes in the past 30 years, and more change is coming. About the only constant has been that tobacco is still an extremely valuable crop that’s worth the time and effort to grow.
“As a child my family hand-strung tobacco and put it in barns,” said Robert Spiers, a Dinwiddie County grower and member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Flue-cured Tobacco Advisory Committee. “My earliest memories were of barns that were cured with wood. We made a living. I know families that lived off of 3, 4 or 5 acres of tobacco.”
Tobacco has been a commercial crop in Virginia since 1614. A national tobacco quota system began in 1938 to stabilize farm prices, and it ended in 2004, when the federal government agreed to make transition payments to growers to ease the move to a free market. Almost $200 million in payments have come back to rural Southside Virginia from those payments, which end in 2014. Virginia’s remaining tobacco farmers now sell their crop through contracts with tobacco buyers.
Spiers and his son grow 110 acres of tobacco. “I grow 1,400 acres of row crops, but tobacco still rules,” he said.
The transition payments ended the old system of thousands of smaller tobacco farms scattered across the South. Farmers with the knowledge, the land and the experience consolidated tobacco acreage and turned to mechanization. Other growers ceased production and used their transition money for other farm enterprises. And others used that money to retire. The remaining tobacco growers have had to become more flexible.
“We’re always evaluating other crops,” Spiers said. “We’ve changed our crop mix. We do things much, much differently. Even though tobacco is politically unpopular and there are issues with tobacco, it’s been our culture to grow it my entire lifetime.” He said his family puts the same effort into growing high-quality tobacco that they apply to all their other crops.
Smoking has declined in the United States in recent decades, but some consumers continue to value the practice. And American tobacco continues to be a valuable export commodity. That means most Virginia growers are likely to survive the end of the transition payments and adapt to new market conditions, Spiers said.