Reality Check: How well have local farmers transitioned from tobacco?
MADISON COUNTY, N.C. (WLOS) —
Parts of Western North Carolina used to be home to 94 percent of the state's burley tobacco farms. That started to change in the 1990s. A study published from the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) examines how well farmers have shifted to food production and direct sales.
Robin Reeves finds herself right at home on the farm.
"The boys are seventh generation," the Madison County farmer explained.
She drove a tractor across a field to feed cattle. Back in the day, the field was used for something else.
"These were old tobacco barns here," she pointed out.
They were traditionally a tobacco farm, but a number of factors made growing tobacco too expensive and too risky. The Reeves stopped growing tobacco in the mid '90s. That was when Robin's dad got sick and passed away. She returned to try to make due.
"It was tough. I mean, it's still tough trying to figure it out because tobacco was such a huge part of this area," Reeves said.
Stories from the News 13 archives document tobacco farmers' anxiety growing over the decades. The whole area in Madison County used to be full of tobacco farms. Now there are less than 75 farms still growing tobacco in the mountains.
"Madison County was the largest tobacco producing county in Western North Carolina, and it took the biggest hit from the loss of tobacco," Charlie Jackson, ASAP's executive director, said.
Jackson co-wrote the study about the area's loss of tobacco.
"We may never replace tobacco and never place what it could uniquely do for our rural communities," Jackson said.
Tobacco might be lost, but hope is not. In 2000, ASAP started a local food program, encouraging farmers to come to markets and sell directly to customers.
"It's pretty much our main business," explained Henderson County farmer Chrisan Klak.
Klak relies on markets to unload her vegetables. So does Reeves. Overall, Madison County has seen a 258 percent increase over 15 years in farms selling straight to customers.
The Reeves go to markets to sell beef, pork, and recently lamb.
"We're hoping that will increase the revenue stream," Reeves said.
Regionally, there's been a 98 percent increase in farms growing vegetables.
"Can I actually find a way to sustain myself on the farm? I've been able to do that somewhat," Reeves said.
Jackson said WNC is home to one-ninth of the state's population, but farmers here are responsible for a quarter of the farmer's direct sales.