- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

WHITAKERS, N.C. - When Dwight Watson drove his tractor into a pond near the Washington Monument last spring to publicize the tobacco farmer’s plight, angry commuters snarled in rush-hour traffic saw him as little more than a nut case.

Fellow leaf growers wondered whether Mr. Watson, who flew the American flag upside down in a gesture of distress, was a shadow of things to come.

“Nine out of 10 are as low as Mr. Watson,” said his neighbor, Kay Fisher. “Nine out of 10 farmers are setting right on the brink.”

Like tobacco farmers across the South, Mr. Watson was struggling to hang on to his livelihood, hoping Congress would approve a buyout of his quota, or the amount of tobacco he is entitled to grow under a federal Depression-era price support system.

But those hopes appear to have died again this year as Congress heads home for the holidays without a deal. Many farmers say they have grown weary of waiting for the relief that always seems to be just around the corner.

“This was their last hope,” Miss Fisher said.

Mr. Watson was convicted of making a false threat to detonate explosives and destruction of federal property. He faces sentencing on Dec. 16.

Kentucky grower Bruce Cline said the anticipation surrounding the buyout already has kept many farmers in tobacco years longer than their better business sense would have dictated.

“There’s this carrot hanging out in front of you, and they’re saying, ‘Maybe one more year,’” said Mr. Cline, a third-generation tobacco farmer who grows 300,000 pounds of burley in western Kentucky’s Christian County. “They could have left in ‘98 with some dignity and some assets. … But we’ve been chasing this carrot to the point where people will be left with nothing.”

Declines in the number of U.S. smokers and a steady increase in the amount of imported leaf from countries such as Brazil and Zimbabwe have sent U.S. tobacco production plunging from nearly 1.5 billion pounds in 1998 to an estimated 831 million pounds this year. Farmers also have seen the government cut their quotas by half over the past five years, and are anticipating another 25 percent cut later this year.

The idea behind the buyout was that by taking away quotas, the cost of production would drop and farmers would be free to grow as much tobacco as their land could support. Quotas are tied to individual farms; in many cases, quota owners don’t grow the tobacco themselves, but instead charge farmers up to 75 cents a pound to lease their growing rights.

Eliminating the lease costs wouldn’t make the farmers more money, but their tobacco would be more competitive on the global market. Compensation for the quotas would enable some farmers to leave the business.

Early versions of the buyout legislation totaled nearly $16 billion, to be paid by cigarette companies.

In a grand compromise with lawmakers from non-tobacco states, that plan was tied to some form of Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products, something cigarette makers had fought for years. But those efforts foundered over disagreements on the FDA provisions. Last-ditch proposals to push through a $7 billion buyout also failed.

The failure of a buyout won’t keep Fred Wetherington, 36, from continuing to grow tobacco on his farm near Hahira in south-central Georgia. But he thinks people who have invested their futures in tobacco and want to get out should get some assistance.

“I’m young enough if I had to, I could do something else,” he said. “But these folks who have done it all their lives should have an opportunity to get out with some dignity. They’ve played by the rules. What’s happened is out of their control.

“I feel it’s un-American to take this quota.”

But critics argue that peanut farmers gave up their quotas last year, and tobacco farmers need to join the free market, too.

“What other American farmer has ever received such unjustified largess from Congress — billions of dollars for a so-called ‘buyout’ while keeping a federal government tobacco program in place?” No. 1 cigarette maker Philip Morris asked in a recent memo to Congress.

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