The federal program designed to help tobacco farmers transition from the depression-era quota system to the free market has officially ended. The last of the tobacco buyout checks were distributed in October. North Carolina farmers and producers received more than one third of the $9.6 billion in buyout payments.
The money helped one tobacco farmer continue his quest to convert his farm to an organic operation. Stanley Hughes and his workers at Pine Knot Farms in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, has spent the past several weeks bringing in the last of the tobacco out of the fields.
Hughes, 66, has lived on this farm all of his life. His grandfather purchased the land more than 100 years ago. Tobacco has been grown here ever since. But it hasn’t been easy.
“The only thing about farming, you can keep a job, work all the time and stay broke,” said Hughes.
Hughes and many other smaller tobacco farmers are familiar with “the broke years.” U.S. tobacco prices peaked in the mid-1990s and then began falling off. Cigarette taxes went up, the number of U.S. smokers went down, and tobacco was cheaper abroad.
Hughes had to do something. He learned during a workshop that he could get a higher price for his tobacco if it was grown organically.
“We started off with one acre, then we got up about five acres before I went totally organic,” said Hughes.
By 2000, Hughes switched all the way over. Everything he raised – from collard greens to tobacco – was organic. And when the tobacco buyout was approved in 2004, he requested his money in one lump sum, instead of in ten yearly payments.
“He’s one of the people that diversified,” said Archie Hart.
Hart is a program specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. He’s very familiar with Hughes’ operation.
“He’s known as the collards man, he also does sweet potatoes. So, he was one of the people that you can look at and say, okay, he took advantage of the buyout and he diversified,” said Hart. “And he has an income stream coming in as a result of that.”
It has all paid off. Hughes ships his tobacco directly to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, an independent operation of Reynolds American. It manufactures the American Spirit brand.
He’s been named Farmer of the Year a couple of times in the Carolinas, and his collards have been featured in Gourmet Magazine. Despite all of his success, Hughes is not one to brag.
“Ain’t nothing I think I’m doing great or exciting, you know,” said Hughes, with a slight smile. “Just working.”