Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Introduction

SINCE SMOKING PREVALENCE has waned in the United States, it is often presumed that tobacco farming has gone by the wayside. North Carolina has long been the country’s leading producer of tobacco. Now the state has a new economy of biomedical and pharmaceutical research to brag about. There is the Research Triangle near Raleigh, and Durham, once a premier tobacco town and headquarters of James B. Duke’s global cigarette monopoly, is now home to Brightleaf Square, a converted tobacco warehouse district that offers an array of restaurants and shops in the downtown area and is close by one of the great medical care and research complexes in the world.

The fact is that tobacco remains the seventh most valuable agricultural commodity in the United States. Each year’s crop is worth about $1.5 billion. Although lacking any nutritional value, tobacco is worth far more as a commodity than most vegetables produced in the United States. Tobacco’s market value is triple the value of the country’s sweet potatoes, about the same as the value of the orange crop, and slightly more than tomatoes. It is worth six times as much as the cucumber crop. It is more valuable than artichokes, asparagus, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, and squash combined. The tobacco cultivated in the United States is worth twice as much as the country’s entire onion crop.1

Tobacco can be terrifically profitable, with growers netting several hundred dollars per acre. Tobacco’s intensive managerial and labor requirements mean that this remains a crop where small farms sit beside large operations, although major changes in tobacco agriculture in the United States in the past few decades have promoted waves of consolidation and mechanization. In spite of this industrialization process, tobacco is produced in North Carolina on farm operations that are considered to be family businesses. Nearly all growers trace their farms back at least a few generations. This is important for them. But to satisfactorily appreciate what the growers and families have at stake in these businesses, the story must go beyond a simple notion of heritage or a basic economic calculus. An explanation of why growers cling to and defend tobacco amid thinned profits, thickened clouds of ethical suspicion, and intensified industry power requires a fuller historical and anthropological account of what it means to be a successful tobacco farm business owner and operator. This includes what growers stand to gain or lose, their efforts

1 These data are taken from regularly updated reports of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

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Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change 35
  • Chapter 1- Most Admired Company 37
  • Chapter 2- The Jungle 63
  • Chapter 3- Enemies of Tobacco 96
  • Part II- Innocence and Blame in American Society 133
  • Chapter 4- Good, Clean Tobacco 135
  • Chapter 5- El Campo 166
  • Chapter 6- Sorriness 210
  • Conclusion Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism) 258
  • Bibliography 275
  • Index 307
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