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What The U.S.-China Trade War Has Meant For North Carolina Tobacco Farmers

Nov 8, 2019
Originally published on November 8, 2019 6:30 pm
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North Carolina is the nation's largest grower and exporter of tobacco. So when the crop was included in retaliatory tariffs from China, it hit the state hard. Paul Garber of member station WFDD reports what the tariffs have meant for farmers in North Carolina.

PAUL GARBER, BYLINE: Brent and Sue Leggett have grown tobacco for 15 years. There are several small barns where fans hum as they cure the harvested crop before it's sold. People around here call this the golden leaf. And Sue points to a packed tractor-trailer.

SUE LEGGETT: This truck is ready to go to market. We've got a load of 52 bales of tobacco ready to be sold.

GARBER: Before the China tariffs, North Carolina tobacco farmers already faced a staggering triple threat - declining demand as fewer people smoke, crop losses from three tropical systems, and tightened global competition, as a strong dollar puts U.S. farms at a competitive disadvantage. And then another problem - when the Trump administration ordered tariffs against China last year, the Chinese retaliated and implemented their own tariffs, including ones targeting U.S. agricultural products like tobacco. That created an unprecedented level of uncertainty for what was once North Carolina's most stable crop. As a result, Brent Leggett says they've planted less tobacco this year, a loss of $100,000.

BRENT LEGGETT: I don't know of a grower in North Carolina that has a plan for next year. Survival is the plan right now.

GARBER: China Tobacco Inc., the state-run monopoly, one bought as much as 80 million pounds of North Carolina tobacco annually. This year, virtually none. It's estimated that state's farmers have lost a quarter of a billion dollars over the last two years. Tobacco is different from most other crops hit by the trade war. The federal government will pay more than $14 billion to U.S. farmers this year after the China market eroded for about two dozen agricultural exports, such as soybeans, corn and wheat. But tobacco farmers aren't eligible for that money. Federal anti-smoking rules prohibit government financial assistance, so there's no payout for tobacco farmers and no buyers for what had been going to China. In warehouses across North Carolina, there's more than a year's worth of tobacco exports sitting unsold.

STEVE TROXLER: The market is very depressed.

GARBER: That's Steve Troxler, North Carolina's agriculture commissioner and a former tobacco farmer.

TROXLER: So, you know, the question is, if I raise it, is it going to be profitable? And, you know, if you're not going to turn a profit, then why would you do it?

GARBER: And Troxler says that's what the state's 2,200 tobacco farmers are wrestling with right now.

TROXLER: We know that farming is a risky business. There's no question. But I have seen the tears in farmers' eyes and running down their cheeks that I never thought I would see ever.

GARBER: Rob Turner's family has farmed tobacco for more than 100 years. His son recently joined the family business in Nash County, the largest tobacco-producing region in the state. They had contracts to go for China Tobacco. Turner is not sure the overseas business will ever come back.

Are you optimistic about your son's prospects of being a tobacco farmer?

ROB TURNER: I used to be. Now it's questionable. Once these tariffs are eliminated or settled, you can talk to me then.

GARBER: Turner says the two sides in the trade war are arguing over policies that have nothing to do with agriculture, leaving the farmers like him and hundreds of others paying the price.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Garber in Winston-Salem, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.