The tobacco buyout brings more local food to Raleigh tables

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Fresh fruits and vegetables are in season and Raleigh is awash in diverse, local offerings, but it wasn’t always this way. The recent locavore and slow food movements have stimulated demand, but our local climate, terrain and the 2004 tobacco buyout allowed many former Wake County tobacco farmers to transition to other crops.

Many are surprised to learn how much agricultural goes on in Wake County. In 2009, more than 2,866 acres in the county were devoted to edible specialty crop production, meaning food. Specialty acreage has grown as farmers switched from the main cash crop, tobacco, when post-buyout markets yielded less profit.

As former tobacco farmer Danny Page, of Wake County’s Page Farms says, “2005 was the last crop. I did it one year under contract with Phillip Morris, but it was not as profitable as it used to be. What I used to make with 50 acres, I needed over a 100 to make the same return.” Page owns around 100 acres and rents 60 more for vegetables, fruits and cattle.

Danny Page shows off the crops at his Wake County Farm. Photo courtesy Page Farms.

Although North Carolina continues to rank number one in tobacco production, Page’s story is typical. “For many years we were proud tobacco farmers from right here in North Carolina. When the tobacco buy-out came about, we had to change over to a new cash crop: corn and strawberries,” Page said.

North Carolina’s terrain and climate make it one of the most diverse agriculture states in the nation, so the transition to specialty crops was do-able, but is isn’t easy or as profitable.

“No crop has yet brought in the same money as tobacco,” said Page, “But the strawberries are about to get close. Per acre, strawberries do better than tobacco, but you can’t raise but so many acres of strawberries. It is high dollar crop to get into. The overhead is higher than with tobacco. I’d say it is about 25 percent less profit on strawberries than I used to get with tobacco. “

Local produce for sale at the Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market. Photo by Ana Duncan Pardo.

After the buyout, former tobacco farmers had help to keep their land in production. Both the Tobacco Trust Fund and Golden Leaf distribute buyout funds. “Our goal is to fund grants which support innovative diversification projects, preserve the family farm and assist communities affected by changes in the tobacco industry,” said William Upchurch, executive director of the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

“Farmers in Wake and other counties have seen tremendous pressure to give up on farming, but it’s imperative that they have access to resources that can reduce expenses, assist with diversification, and preserve farmland so that they can keep producing our food and livestock products that are in high demand,” Upchurch said. That’s very important because North Carolina lost “more than 100,000 acres of farmland per year” to development from 1992-1997, the fifth highest rate in the U.S, according the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.

Local produce for sale at the Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market. Photo by Ana Duncan Pardo.

Transition support also comes from Cooperative Extension. They provide know-how, new varieties and marketing support. N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services websites for pick your own, farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (ventures that allow consumers to buy ‘shares’ in a farm’s production in return for delivery of crops in season) and various grower’s associations also provide marketing support.

Local growers sell fresh produce at farmers markets, roadside stands, restaurants and on the farm. Page Farms sells 90 percent of its produce right on the farm, which is located at 6100 Mount Herman Road, a short drive from Leesville Road.

“Sweet corn and other produce we set up under the oak tree and sell it on the honor system. So people come and get what they need and pay. In future, we may have to change that as we are seeing some theft,” observed Page.

“If farmers can make a living, a bit of profit,” says Page, “We will keep on farming. More would hold on to the land, but when you get to the point you can’t make a living on it, send your kids to college, that’s when selling to a developer makes sense.”

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