Local tobacco farmer optimistic about buyout bill

By Julie Fann
star staff

Michael Nidiffer, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer whose country home sits at the foot of the Appalachian mountains in Stoney Creek, remembers when growing tobacco was about small town community not big business. A husband and father of three, Nidiffer struggles to keep his heritage alive despite a changing market and diminishing returns.
   "In the past, it wasn't just about growing the tobacco; it was about family and fellowship," Nidiffer said. "We would all get together and work and talk. You might brag about your tobacco, or aggravate your neighbor because his had morning glories in it. You helped each other."
   Nidiffer and his wife, Debbie, still grow five acres of tobacco on a farm that once grew 30 but, due to changing times resulting in a decrease in tobacco sales and increased overhead, seeing a profit on tobacco is, according to the Nidiffers, almost impossible. Michael is also an assistant vocational principal at Happy Valley High School and Debbie is a special education teacher.
   "If it wasn't for both of us working outside the home, we don't know what we would do," Debbie Nidiffer said. The couple estimates that, last year, the amount they invested in five acres of tobacco totaled approximately $15,000, and the amount they received from their crop was $13,000. "We were about $2,000 short," she said.
   Intense focus on the dangers of cigarette smoking is not the only reason tobacco growers are struggling. Manufacturers glean a pretty profit off of local growers. Add to that federal legislation that regulates pricing and limits the amount of tobacco farmers can grow, and it spells defeat for small town farmers.
   During the Great Depression, a federal program was designed to set price and production controls on U.S. leaf, but because tobacco is now grown cheaper in other countries, consumers are buying less, and the cost of overhead is increasing, such controls hurt the wallet of the small U.S. farmer.
   The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation to bring a halt to the federal program and end quotas, allowing farmers to grow as much as they want. Reps. Bill Jenkins, R-Tenn. and Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., drafted the bill, HR 4033, titled the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004. The bill currently awaits Senate action.
   Nidiffer and other farmers are taking an active role in making sure the bill passes. Buyout payments would total $9.6 billion, paid over five years, and would be funded from the general treasury. The House-passed buyout is not linked to legislation giving the FDA the authority to regulate manufactured tobacco products
   "What they're wanting to do is just open up the market and take away any quota system. We'll be able to grow what we want to grow. If I want to grow 100 acres I can do so if I have a place to sell it," Nidiffer said. In the past, Nidiffer has dealt with a representative from a major tobacco industry in Mountain City. Now, he will be dealing with Phillip Morris in Gray.
   Nidiffer's farm has a quota of 2,600 pounds. His farm yield, however, is around 3,000 pounds per acre. In order to sell the amount he grows, Nidiffer must buy the right to do so, meaning he must ask his neighbors - the ones with morning glories in their crop - to sell him their quota amount. Then, he talks to Keith Hart, county agent for the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Extension office in Elizabethton, and they negotiate a price.
   "I've got about 16,000 pounds I can sell this year, but only because I've already invested money in getting it done," he said.
   Last year, Nidiffer had around 9,000 pounds that he couldn't sell. In years past, he has been able to carry that amount over to the next year, but in 2001, the federal government passed a bill that will only allow for a 10 percent carryover amount. Anything more cannot be sold.
   "There's a formula that they use to do this, and it has two or three variables in it. They'll either say, 'We're going to give you a little more, or we're going to cut it down.' This year, we actually got a five percent increase in our allotment, but they cut my carryover either 47 or 53 percent," Nidiffer said.
   "Last year they took about 4,500 pounds from me that I'd already paid for. So this year, I had to go buy that 4,500 pounds back to put it back where it needed to be."
   To compensate for little return on tobacco, Nidiffer and other farmers are turning to other crops as an alternative. Nidiffer and his wife also grow 30 acres of horse-quality hay, or alfalfa, as well as pumpkins.
   "Used to, a little tobacco crop paid your taxes, your insurance and you had a little Christmas money left over, but now it's not going to be like that. People will be reimbursed for quotas, but unless they're careful, they'll be without income and in bad financial shape," he said.
   Keith Hart of the agricultural extension office said the only solution would be one that took care of all interests - the farmer, the manufacturer, the consumer, and the health care industry.
   "The reality is that a certain percentage of the American public continue to smoke. If I have a concern, it's where we're producing it overseas and not regulating it like we do here. It is better if it is under the scrutiny of this country where we can monitor it," he said.