Tobacco Farmers Feel The Pinch Of Rising Taxes Last week, a tax increase on cigarettes went into effect in New York state, raising the price in some places to more than $10 per pack. As prices rise, demand -- and smoking rates -- are down. In several states, growers are riding a downturn.
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Tobacco Farmers Feel The Pinch Of Rising Taxes

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Tobacco Farmers Feel The Pinch Of Rising Taxes

Tobacco Farmers Feel The Pinch Of Rising Taxes

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

These are not easy times to be a smoker, especially in New York, where a pack will run you more than $10. In Hawaii, it's about eight bucks.

But as our colleague Noah Adams discovered recently, when tobacco farmers hear about the tax hikes, they just shake their heads.

And late this past spring, Noah traveled to western Kentucky to watch the new crop being planted. And what he found was that this year, there's less tobacco being planted by fewer farmers.

NOAH ADAMS: They call it setting tobacco. You've had tobacco seedlings in the greenhouse, you watch the weather and you wait. This year, it was rainy for weeks, then a few dry days in June, and it's time to go.

(Soundbite of farm equipment)

ADAMS: Four men ride a planting rig on the back of the tractor. A furrow is opened up. The men separate small blocks of soil, each with a young green plant. They're placed in a rotary transplanting wheel, and a row of growing tobacco is left behind.

These almost look like pepper plants here.

Ms. CAROL HINTON (Agriculture Extension Agent, Breckinridge County, Kentucky): Pepper plants.

ADAMS: Eighteen inches apart.

Ms. HINTON: Yes.

ADAMS: All right.

Ms. HINTON: No, 20 inches apart in the row, 40 inches apart between the rows.

ADAMS: Carol Hinton is the agriculture extension agent for Breckinridge County. She's from here and has watched over a big change in tobacco growing.

Ms. HINTON: Yeah, used to be we had three-acre patches, and now we've gone to 10 to 30-acre patches. You can raise as much as a tobacco company will buy from you.

ADAMS: These days, you can plant so much tobacco, it'll look like a corn field. Five years ago, a buyout program went into effect. The federal government said we've got to stop supporting the price of tobacco. We'll take away your quota, give you a payout over 10 years, go do what you want.

Mr. BRANDON TAUL: I'm Brandon Taul, and I'm standing in McQuady, Kentucky. This is a farm that I've got here. It's been in my family for, I guess, four generations.

ADAMS: Most of the longtime tobacco growers got out. It had been a nice crop that brought in cash around Christmas. But times change. Other growers said wait, no more quotas, now we can get big, and we can sign contracts with the tobacco companies like Philip Morris International.

Brandon Taul has put up new barns - a barn can cost $30,000 - and is planting in several fields, one of them out in front of his new house.

Mr. TAUL: Like this house, I built it five years ago thinking tobacco was going be good, and we were going to be able to make a living on it. But consumption's going down. And hopefully, it'll get better. There's always ups and downs.

ADAMS: Brandon Taul is doing okay this year, but the real ups and downs are more drastic. Up, that would be taxes on tobacco, federal, state, city; down, that would be smoking rates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers in 1965, 42 percent of American adults were smoking cigarettes. In 2007, less than 20 percent. The line on the graph continues to slant down.

And so now a letter can come to the farm mailbox: Your contract will be for 30 percent less, 50 percent, or you won't even have a new contract.

Mr. STEVEN HINTON: I think the ones that are left that are still growing, I think there's a lot of anxiety with them. Now, the ones that got cut out, they're mad.

ADAMS: This is Steven Hinton, Carol Hinton's husband. They have a farm operation with a lot of tobacco and, so far, no cutbacks.

You can drive the roads of Breckinridge County and see who's planting and who's not. County agent Hinton is out about 100 miles a day. She works with all the crops and the animals, but this is tobacco busy time.

Mr. EDDIE DYER(ph): That's her job. If it wasn't for me, she wouldn't have a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DYER: Job security.

ADAMS: Eddie Dyer is watching the sky, listening for thunder. He's wanting to set tobacco some this afternoon. He's got time now to lean against a truck and talk with Carol Hinton.

Ms. HINTON: A lot of times, I don't even see the farmer. I have to leave a note in their vehicle or taped on the greenhouse or with their wife or with their kids. I have to leave them what I found, what I recommend - and here's my number, call me.

(Soundbite of thunder)

ADAMS: Underneath a picnic shelter at the County Cooperative Extension Office, we talk about the government buyout five years ago.

Ms. HINTON: I'm helping them grow a legal crop. It's still legal to smoke tobacco. It's still legal for them to grow it. The only thing I wish I could have pushed them into strawberries or peppers or something of that nature.

And some people have tried those things. But I'm not going to say they were very successful at them. And it's a lot of work for a lot less money than tobacco will bring in.

ADAMS: Carol Hinton has been working to establish a farmers market in the summer, Tuesday evening and Saturday morning. More than 20 growers have signed up, hoping to bring in extra money. The trouble is, Hinton says, in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, people like to share their sweet corn and extra cucumbers - they just want to give them away.

For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.

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