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Crop alternatives for tobacco farmers

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By Mallory Bilger

PART TWO of a Spencer Magnet report

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It’s an uncertain time for farmers, especially those that rely upon tobacco as an important part of their income.

With a decreased demand for tobacco products, the large companies that purchase Kentucky burley have either eliminated or drastically reduced many of their contracts with Spencer County’s growers.

Spencer County Agricultural Extension Agent Bryce Roberts said in the last 10 years farms producing tobacco in the county have dropped by 75 percent.

For many local farmers raising tobacco is no longer a lucrative endeavor, but abandoning their farms in search of another profession isn’t an option either. Some have turned to alternative crops in hopes they will be able to keep their farm operations alive.

George and Sandi Deutsch and their son, Franklin, of Deutsch Farm on Cotton Lane, have done exactly that.

Farming runs deep in the Deutsch family, spanning more than 100 years. Over the years, the Deutsch farm has produced hay, tobacco, fruits, vegetables and more. But 2010 will be the first year in several that the tobacco won’t be part of the crops.

Franklin, 25, had been heading up the farm’s tobacco production. He said the decision to not raise tobacco this year came after he was unable to secure a sales contract.

Franklin didn’t feel that large tobacco manufacturing companies like Phillip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds were necessarily treating farmers unfairly. He said they simply don’t need as much tobacco as they once did.

“The retail sale of it is down,” he said. “If you look at the whole picture, plain and simple, there’s just not as many people using tobacco these days.”

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company Spokesperson David Howard said his company must purchase only what the demand dictates it should. He said companies across the United States and beyond are reducing the amount of tobacco they purchase from growers because demand has decreased sharply.

“The bottom line is, as you’re well aware, there has been a decline in cigarette volume now for many years. Certainly that decline can be related to any number of factors,” he said.

Howard said R.J. Reynolds does have contracts with Kentucky burley growers but was unable to confirm if any of them are in Spencer County. He said that when R.J. Reynolds creates a partnership with a grower, it looks for high quality leaves, sustainability of supply, consistent delivery and the use of good agricultural practices.

Franklin said companies are only purchasing the highest-quality tobacco, which is graded by inspectors. He and Sandi agreed the grading process is very subjective and depends largely upon the tobacco not having any dirt or garbage in it, the leaves being a correct color and the moisture content being right.

Franklin said he sold the last of the farm’s tobacco from the 2009 growing season in January.

“That was the last of our crop for the foreseeable future, maybe forever,” he said.

But that certainly isn’t the end to the Deutsch family farm.

Sandi said the family hasn’t relied on tobacco as a major money-making crop for several years. She and George have refocused their efforts on fruit and vegetable production and are also looking to turn their 200-acre farm into an agritourism attraction, or, more simply, a teaching farm.

“We feel like the fruits and vegetables are our future,” Sandi said.

The Deutschs’ biggest money-making vegetables right now are sweet corn and tomatoes. But the farm also has a small orchard and produces cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, blueberries and more.

Sandi admitted that preparing a farm to raise alternative crops can take years. She said it could take up to eight years for blueberry production alone to be profitable, because it takes many years to prepare the soil.

“You’re going to have to think outside of the box,” she said of farmers looking to have sustainable future operations.

Roberts said many local farmers are looking to expand or diversify their operations as tobacco offers less and less stability but they are going to have to work hard to find alternatives to replace lost tobacco income.

“There are no crops that produce the financial returns than an acre of tobacco can produce. Other farms are increasing their number of cattle and increasing the amount of other crops that they raise, including hay, corn and soybeans,” he said.

Surprisingly, Roberts said he hasn’t seen many local farms go out of business because of the crumbling tobacco industry.

Sandi and Franklin agreed that in order for the Deutsch farm to survive, they would have to be open to change – and that they are. Sandi said she and her family love farming and it’s in their blood, so they will do whatever necessary to keep their farm. And that includes grooming their son to take over the operation.

At 25, there aren’t many young people looking forward to years of farming. But Franklin is.

“My goal has always been to come back to the farm,” he said.