The Struggle of Virginia Tobacco Famers

Nov. 11, 2002 -- Tobacco, the "golden leaf" of Virginia, was once a celebrated crop with farms passed from generation to generation. These days, Virginia farmers say the celebration is over.

Tobacco has always thrived in the rugged hills of Virginia. Just a few acres of it kept small family farms profitable, but today farmers know the golden leaf won't be a big part their family's farming future.

In 1899, 184,000 acres of tobacco was harvested in Virginia. By 1999 the number of acres had dropped to 38,000. Farmer Martin Miles says he struggles to cope.

"It's just a family tradition." Miles said. "Everybody grows because that's the only thing in this area, the coal mines and the tobacco farms. That's the only way you can make money. And that's the way they sent the kids to school and put the food on the table," he said.

Tobacco has played a huge part in Virgina's history. In 1612, just three years after his arrival in America from England, John Rolfe began the state's tobacco industry. He exported the first shipment in 1614 and it became the state's biggest cash crop.

Tobacco became central to the state economy and to the new United States in the 1770s. It was glorified and celebrated with parades and tobacco queens. In tribute to the history of Virginia's top cash crop, thousands of tiny tobacco leaves are carved into the ceiling of the State Capitol.

That Was Then

In the last 30 years, the medical world turned against smoking and against tobacco companies.

Since the master settlement agreement between the government and big tobacco was reached in 1998, the government has paid farmers not to grow tobacco.

State and federal agencies have made payments to Virginia farmers to keep them from bankruptcy after they were forced to make large crop reductions as a result of the lawsuit. The payments replace income the farmers have lost for each pound of tobacco they didn't plant.

Bu tobacco still tops Virginia's cash crops. Last year it generated $124 million. Soybeans, which ranked second, brought in $80 million.

Changing Crops

Mansel LaForce and his son Warren have a small tobacco farm just outside Dungannon, Va. Three years ago they began growing organic vegetables and they expect to end all tobacco production at their farm within the next five years.

"Farming seems to be almost a dying breed in a sense because there's not a lot of youth out there," Warren LaForce said. "I go to a lot of meetings and I look around the room and I don't see a lot of people my age, and I feel like a lot of the reason is because it's such a challenge," Warren said.

Over the next 25 years, Virginia is expected to receive $4 billion from the national tobacco settlement with cigarette manufacturers. Half of the sum is slated for anti-smoking campaigns and the state's general revenue fund. The rest will go to tobacco growers and towns that depend on tobacco to survive.

When those payments run out, tobacco farmers don't know how they'll stay afloat. Some have already started to switch out tobacco for another crop, but the transition is difficult for families who have grown tobacco for generations.

For the first time in 45 years, the Miles family hasn't planted a tobacco crop this year. Instead, the family is raising grass-fed goats and growing organic vegetables. The family belongs to a local cooperative of organic farmers who are making the difficult transition from a reliance on tobacco.

"We all thought it'd be here for years and years and years," Miles said. "I thought I would never outlive, to see it go. I thought one day it might. But I didn't think I would ever see it. If you growed it as long as I have, it's hard not to grow it," he said.

ABCNEWS' Bob Woodruff produced this story for Good Morning America.