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Tobacco Farmers in Transition to Sustainability

By Lesley Lammers

As the American tobacco industry has fallen with the overwhelming evidence of smoking’s negative health implications, the rise in international tobacco production competition, the mounting social taboo of smoking, as well a shift away from the government's Depression-era tobacco quota system of subsidies, tobacco farmers have had to come up with new ways to earn a living. This situation has, ironically, constructively contributed to the sustainable agriculture movement, causing some tobacco farmers to convert their land and livelihoods into more sustainable enterprises that move away from growing tobacco.

Sami Grover of Treehugger framed the transition for tobacco farmers in a positive light concluding, “…it seems that the crises faced by many traditional agricultural sectors are also an opportunity for innovation. Given the potential for agroecology to increase global food production, it seems that the notion of ‘get big or get out’ is starting to feel a little out dated. ‘Get nimble, or get out’ might be more appropriate.”

Organizations like the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) has played a significant role in facilitating this very type of innovation. Take for example, the previously tobacco-centered farming community of Rockingham County, NC, which has come up with creative solutions that foster more enduring, sustainable local businesses that provide a substitute to tobacco production.

Many farmers there have received assistance from RAFI’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund (TCRF), a program that helps farmers build alternative sources of agricultural income via cost-share grants. The goal, they say, is to “keep farmers in farming.” North Carolina farmers are eligible for $10,000 individual grants or $30,000 collaborative farmer project community grants. Priority is given to initiatives that offer opportunities for a new generation of farmers as well as those who made income from tobacco during the time of the Master Settlement Agreement.

Piedmont Local Food (PLF) has been in partnership with RAFI through their TCRF program for two years, working as an online farmers market that brings in local growers and creates new markets such as restaurants and buying clubs for these farmers to sell their goods. This collaborative effort not only attracts economic opportunity to rural areas of the Piedmont Triad, but also helps tobacco farmers to stay farmers:

One NC farmer who received a TCRF community grant was Paul Marshall of River Birch Vineyards, who organized the Triad Fruit Growers and set up a processing facility for local fruit producers to make juices and value-added fruit products to sell on the local market.

Worth Kimmel of Pine Trough Branch Farm, was a recipient of an individual grant and used the money to install a solar powered pump and fencing system that aids the rotational intensive grazing of his cattle.

Matthew Garrett of Garrett's Gardens took his grant and turned his 40 acre tobacco farm into an organic vegetable farm:

The USDA's Tobacco Transition Payment Program, also known as the “tobacco buyout”, which started in 2004 pays tobacco producers and quota holders through 2014 to transition to other agricultural production or out of the tobacco industry (these payments don’t come from taxpayer dollars, but rather from tobacco manufacturers and importers).
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Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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