In July 29 Issue
The past 30 years have seen the Russell County tobacco market decrease by more than $5 million, according to E. Raymond Thompson, the county extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.
Thompson said with domestic cigarette consumption declining and the possibility of new international regulations that would restrict the contents of cigarettes, local and state burley farmers are feeling the heat like never before.
"It really is pitiful," Thompson said of the state of Kentucky tobacco industry.
"The good markets are now the exports markets," he said. That could soon change with these proposed regulations.
Last year, Russell County's tobacco crop was worth less than $2.5 million, down from $7.5 million in 1982. From 1998 to 2009, the total value of Kentucky's burley crop fell from $791.7 million to $274.1 million. Currently the crop supplies more than $386.4 million into the state's economy, but that could soon change.
"In the last two to four years there have been a lot of people quitting smoking, which is good for general health but bad for the growers," he said. Because of this, most of the crop was contracted out and shipped overseas through various contractors.
New proposed regulations being written by the World Health Organization through the international tobacco control treaty could further damage growers who sell to overseas markets as it would ban much of the use of burley tobacco in cigarettes, opponents to the regulations say.
Russell County and state growers produce the burley, which is a key ingredient in the "American blend" cigarettes that are produced here and abroad.
"Companies are not eager to buy locally grown tobacco," Thompson said. He said this is in part due to the companies not wanting to deal with small acreage growers but would rather deal with large producers of 100 acres or more.
"People can't get contracts anymore and that has lead to them selling without contracts and that has its consequences," he said. "Future contracts could be reduced."
He said big tobacco companies have also started micromanaging many small tobacco crops and monitoring their progress. These companies have, in turn, hired agronomists to assist them and tutor farmers on new trends in the tobacco-producing community.
"We still support the growers and we'll answer any questions they may have to give them the best quality crop possible," Thompson said of the extension service.
County extension agents aren't the only burley crop supporters as six of the eight members of Kentucky's congressional delegation have written WHO officials in protest, saying that a burley ban overseas would provide no significant health benefits.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-1st District; Brett Guthrie, R-2nd; Geoff Davis, R-4th; Hal Rogers, R-5th; and Ben Chandler, D-6th have all voiced concerns on the potential overseas ban.
The measure could be passed and implemented later this year if nothing changes, further darkening the outlook of the burley tobacco farmer, according to state officials.
To contact the Russell County Cooperative Extension Service about tips or advice on growing and maintaining a burley tobacco crop or any other agriculture-related questions, call 270-866-4477.