Going organic gives tobacco farms new lease on life
Like many Americans, Sam Askins has given up tobacco and developed a passion for organic food. Unlike most Americans, he is a sixth-generation tobacco farmer living in the remote Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia.
“I kicked ‘bacco a few years ago,” Askins (54) said with a country drawl and a chuckle. “It was a bad habit.”
It was also a dying industry since the government scaled back quotas for the crop in the mid-1990s, delivering a blow to a remote rural area already in economic decline.
As cigarette giants switched to tobacco from Turkey, Brazil and Zimbabwe, demand dropped for the world-famous Virginia tobacco. In Lee County around tiny Stickleyville, revenues plunged from $9-million to $2,4-million between 1998 and 2001.
Scrambling for alternatives, enterprising local farmer discovered organic agriculture, usually associated more with Californian hippie farmers than Appalachia’s banjo-playing hill people.
It is a style of farming that aims for sustainability and harmony with nature, avoiding herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers to keep soils, rivers and ecosystems healthy.
Organic farmers use flowers to attract beneficial insects that reduce pests, and compost to enrich soils aerated by worms and other organisms that thrive in the toxin-free earth. Long practiced by market gardeners, “back-to-the-landers” and Amish families, organic farming this month went mainstream in the United States when the government set national industry standards.
Official, new organic labels have fuelled consumer interest that small farmers and major food corporations alike hope to cash in on. The $10-billion sector is expected to double within a few years.
Askins and 27 other farmers in the “Appalachian Harvest” network hope just a small slice of that market will be enough to save their family farms.
“We have yet to create any millionaires,” said Tom Peterson of the non-profit group Appalachian Sustainable Development, which supports the organic farmers in Virginia and Tennessee. He said sales this year reached a modest $160 000 but are set to grow as more sceptical tobacco farmers jump on board.
This week, half a dozen organic converts met in an old tobacco barn on a farm nestled amid fog-shrouded mountains ablaze in yellow and red autumn foliage.
The weather-beaten barn—where metre-long, brown tobacco leaves are still dried—now also houses the co-op’s new packaging plant for tomatoes, squash, peppers and other organic produce.
The farmers were meeting to discuss who should grow which vegetables next season, so they can rotate crops on their fields and meet the demand of local restaurants and supermarkets.
They also shared tips on a way of farming that is vastly more complex than tobacco growing. “We’re moving from producing big dead leaves to ripe, fresh produce,” Peterson said. Growing tobacco is an “undeniable ecological disaster”, he said, because of a heavy dependence on chemicals that pollute soils, kill off butterflies, frogs and fish, and harm the workers.
“I used to feel sicker than a dog after I sprayed those fields,” said farmer John Mullins (35). “You’re using toxins that are basically low-grade nerve agents.”
Like the other five farmers at the meeting, he reported that manmade chemicals and nicotine in the ripe tobacco leaves has made his skin burn and left him dizzy and nauseous for days.
“Tobacco feels like it’s a thing of the past,” Askins said. “With organic farming, it kind of feels like we’re pioneers”. But his lifelong neighbour Martin Miles (60) said organic farming is not really new to him.
“When I was a child, it was all about organic,” he said. “We grew everything we needed, and we didn’t use any chemicals. The crops were taller, healthier, and they tasted better.” - Sapa-DPA