Not Feelin' Finer in Carolina as Antismoking Movement Grows, Tobacco Farmers Lose a Way of Life

Article excerpt

A SUN-WORN farmer putters ahead in his tractor on the paved road that winds its way through miles of tobacco in this lush, sparsely populated area of the Tarheel State.

Just a town away lies Winston-Salem, a city of 150,000 where that tobacco is processed into the Camel, Winston, and Salem cigarettes that are today at center stage of health-care and drug debates nationwide.

And though the computerized factories and executive offices of the R.J. Reynolds Co., headquartered in that city, are a world apart from Belews Creek, the decisions made there - and in Congressional offices in Washington - greatly affect the livelihood of these rural farmers.

"Cigarettes are not illegal yet," says Raymond Hester, a member of a dwindling number of family farms in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. "I don't understand politicians' interest in putting us out of business," he says. "They've singled tobacco out."

Because tobacco does not lend itself to mechanized harvesting and is a highly profitable commodity crop, tobacco farmers don't have to work thousand-acre holdings to make a living off the land, and family farming has been as much a part of the landscape in North Carolina as the loose, loamy soil in which tobacco grows.

Little-by-little, though, as smoking has become known as a health hazard, growing tobacco has become a less-secure way to make a living. Demand for tobacco is down as fewer people smoke, the profit margin for farmers shrinks with increasing taxes, and the less money a farmer can make from an acre, the more acres he must own. Now, a Democratic plan to finance health-care reform through a hefty cigarette tax and today's strong antismoking sentiments threaten to end family farming here for good.

To farmers in Belews Creek, tobacco as a crop that allows a family to make a living is separated from the national debate over cigarettes as a dangerous product. …