Tobacco Markets Open for the Last Time? - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

08/03/04

Tobacco Markets Open for the Last Time?

Farmers sweat, toil and gamble for months to raise a tobacco crop. But that could soon change. A decades-old market system could be abolished in Washington. The ripples would be felt back here at home.

As the buyers walked up and down the aisles of tobacco at a warehouse on Packinghouse Road in Statesboro, Lamar DeLoach wondered how much longer it would last. He says the proposed tobacco buyout won't make anybody rich.

"I don't know a tobacco farmer in Georgia that's made any money over the last two, three years," he said. "Matter of fact, most of us have lost money just hanging on in hopes a buyout will occur."

If passed by Congress, a buyout would repay farmers for the loss of a federal system they paid to build. DeLoach says most farmers would use the money--$700 million in Georgia--to pay off tobacco-related debt.

"If we can get the deal without any strings attached, we'll see production of tobacco go up in Georgia, not down," said state agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin.

But Bob Brannen says it would be a death notice. He owns tobacco warehouses that now sit mostly empty as quotas have dropped. The plan doesn't provide relief for him.

"We're as much a part of the program as the farmer," he said. "We had to build these warehouses where there was a market, where there were graders assigned."

Brannen thinks the buyout would free tobacco companies to dump farmers here in favor of cheaper subsidized product overseas.

A few years ago, farmers switched to a bail system that puts three times the weight of tobacco in the same space. In a matter of 30 minutes they sold 180,000 pounds. With all the efficiency, many wonder exactly how long they'll get to use it.

Today and tomorrow, markets in Vidalia, Blackshear and Alma will open as well.

Reported by: Dal Cannady, dcannady@wtoc.com

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