Perspectives Online

An Investment with Impact. By Art Latham. Tobacco Trust Fund  helps farmers seed their futures.

In Buncombe County, Rob Hawk, Terry Banks and Erin Jasin look over the site where Banks plans to plant blueberries, as soon as the pH level in the former cattle pasture is adjusted.
In Buncombe County, Rob Hawk, Terry Banks and Erin Jasin look over the site where Banks plans to plant blueberries, as soon as the pH level in the former cattle pasture is adjusted.
(Photo by Art Latham)
They say it takes money to make money. But it's a bit hard for western North Carolina farmers to make money when one of their cash mainstays - tobacco - has failed them.

To help farmers in that situation, in 2003 the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission launched the West District Tourism and Crop Diversification Project. The $198,210 grant helps pay for agricultural tourism and crop diversification projects in 15 mountainous North Carolina counties, from Watauga to Henderson to Cherokee.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Foundation administers the funds, which break down to $2,500 seed-money grants for 51 tobacco farmers, other farmers and those in tobacco-dependent communities.

“Part of the idea behind the grants is to help farmers become better acquainted with their county Extension centers and form partnerships with agents in the centers,” says Rob Hawk, area Extension specialist and project director.

The seed money is not for tobacco plants but to provide the financial incentive for farmers to take risks with alternative crop options and agritourism projects by creating a demonstration program to help with financial aid, education, training and marketing.

In other words, the money is expected to grow money.

The project’s team leader is certain that will happen. “These grants are all reinvested in the communities,” says Erin Jasin, Cooperative Extension’s West District team leader for the project. “We estimate the impact over the next two years will be more than $1 million, based on farmers’ estimates.”

Jasin notes as an example Carl Patterson of Robbinsville in Graham County, who estimated in his application that his $2,500 grant could generate $11,000 in two years.

Patterson stopped growing tobacco in 2003. He also had sold off his dairy calves but held on to vegetables and honey. He’s now raising Boer goats, bought with his grant. The grant also funded his purchase of fencing to ensure pasture rotations, as well as goat care and breeding expenses.

In Haywood County, Hawk and Jasin confer with Donald Smart (center), who has diversified from tobacco to organic tomatoes and peppers on his family’s farm.
In Haywood County, Hawk and Jasin confer with Donald Smart (center), who has diversified from tobacco to organic tomatoes and peppers on his family's farm.
(Photo by Art Latham)
Joe Miller of Green Mountain in Yancey County estimated a $15,500 two-year return on his investment in biodiesel fuel produced with used processed cooking oils from local restaurants. He and a business partner intend to heat two commercial greenhouses and may operate farm equipment with the product.

And by producing hydroponic tomatoes during high-demand periods — as well as herbs, bedding plants, hanging baskets and nursery plants — in their grant-improved greenhouse, Doyle and Janet Mull of Sylva in Jackson County expect a $67,000 two-year gross. “We intend to base our total income on this project,” Doyle Mull says in his application.

Donald Smart of Clyde in Haywood County fielded 50 tobacco acres every year from 1996 to 2003. Smart, an N.C. State University graduate in horticulture, said tobacco helped him survive full-time farming for 30 years with no outside income. “Now that’s being taken from me and I need something to replace lost income if I continue to survive on the farm full-time,” Smart says.

To do that, he’s planted two acres of organic tomatoes and an acre of organic peppers on his family’s farm. He expects a first-year return of $48,000, if the rain lets up and he can find a reliable market.

Another N.C. State alumnus, Terry Banks, who comes from a long line of farmers, was forced to get a second job to keep working his family’s farm near Barnardsville in Buncombe County. Banks grew from 20 to 70 acres of burley from 1972 to 2003, as well as beef and dairy cattle. He put in more burley to supplement farm income when he sold his dairy cattle in 1986 but held on to his beef cattle.

“As future tobacco production grew more uncertain, I began growing more produce: beans, corn, cucumbers and squash,” Banks says. “Large burley quota cuts resulted in my part-time flexible employment with the U.S. Postal Service in 2000. That allows me to continue farming.”

Banks projects a $5,000 gross income in 2006; $7,500 for 2007 and up to $17,500 by 2011 for the blueberries he’s planting where his cattle once were pastured.

“It’s important to me that my grandchildren have the opportunities of experiencing life on a farm,” he says. “As I continue to look at crop diversification to replace declining tobacco income, I’m excited at the prospect of growing blueberries.”

While working on his master’s degree at Western Carolina University, Matt Rhea, who raised tobacco for four years, became involved with the university’s Mountain Aquaculture Center and started researching trout populations.

With the help of Skip Thompson, N.C. Cooperative Extension area specialised agent in aquaculture for Haywood County, Matt and his wife Tracie in 1995 founded Sorrels Creek Trout Farm in the shadow of Cold Mountain. The farm produces about 50,000 pounds of trout yearly, says Matt.

“We’ve developed many good local markets over the years,” he says, “but the market price for trout sold to processors hasn’t risen to keep up with costs. The request for local value-added products prompted us to expand into processing. We already completed required FDA HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] compliance, but need more upgrades and equipment.”

With the upgrades, the Rheas can market smoked trout straight from their farm, with substantially higher profit margins as well as increased market potential — all of which will help his family continue to farm.

And that’s what the Tobacco Trust Fund grants are all about.