Archive for Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tobacco farms keep plugging along

Clay-rich soil in nearby Platte County, Mo., provides prime spot for growing crop

September 19, 2007

It's hard work being a tobacco farmer.

The chopping of the tobacco stalk, stacking the leaves on spear-studded sticks, loading the sticks onto a passing flatbed truck and hanging the stalks -- row upon row -- in barns to cure.

It's the last part that is the most impressive -- and dangerous -- as workers scramble up high wooden beams to hang the leaves.

Since the start of August, it's been harvest time for Midwest tobacco farmers. It's a dirty, tiring job that requires a constant stream of labor.

From the greenhouse to the warehouse, growing tobacco requires roughly 200 hours per acre of manual labor.

For Dan Morgan, who is expecting to harvest more than 150 acres this year just north of Weston, Mo., that's a lot of work for his crew.

Weston was once called the tobacco capital west of the Mississippi.

"That doesn't say a whole lot," Morgan said. "We only raised about, and still only raise about, 1 percent of the burley tobacco."

Burley tobacco is a light colored, air-cured tobacco mainly used in cigarette production.

Yet Platte County, in the heart of which sits Morgan's farm, produces around 65 percent of all the tobacco in the state. Last year, Missouri harvested about 3.5 million pounds of the crop.

The clay-rich soil makes the stretch of land between St. Joseph, Mo., and Kansas City International Airport a prime spot for growing tobacco.

Until a few years ago, tobacco was grown on the other side of the state line in Atchison and Leavenworth counties. Rick Abel, county executive director for USDA Farm Service Agency in Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Atchison counties, said there used to be about a half dozen tobacco producers in his region.

In 2004, a buyout program went into effect. The U.S. government no longer provided price support or supply control programs for tobacco. In return, it offered payments for tobacco farmers who stopped growing the crop.

The majority of farmers who continue to grow tobacco now contract with tobacco companies such as Philip Morris.

Abel said he doesn't think there is any tobacco being grown in his Kansas region since the buyout. The farmland is now being used for corn or soybeans.

"There's no quotas, so there is no protection for (the farmer)," Abel said. "It's just not worthwhile for them to do it."

The reduction of tobacco farms has been a trend nationwide for decades. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 512,000 tobacco farms existed in 1954 and just 56,977 in 2002.

When the tobacco market was strong, Missouri would produce nearly twice as much tobacco as it does today, said Louis Smither, co-owner of the New Deal Warehouse in Weston and a tobacco farmer.

However, a decline in smoking, an increase in cheaper foreign imports, a rise in older farmers retiring and a change in government regulations have meant fewer farms.

Farmers also struggle with finding the labor needed to harvest the crop and the barns to hang it.

Morgan said at one time it was common for many high school students to work on the end-of-season harvest. Not so any more.

Since the early 1980s, Morgan has been using immigrant labor, which was hard to come by during the housing and construction boom.

Morgan said as more landowners move away from growing tobacco and urban newcomers acquire property, there is increasing unwillingness to rent out the barns necessary to cure the leaves.

But for now, Morgan, who puts in days that start before sunup and end after sundown, is focused on getting the harvest finished before the coming frost.

"We'll be going pretty late," he said.

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