Attacking a way of lifeLast night my wife and I watched WATE-TV's special report State of Tobacco with great interest. The topic of Governor Phil Bredesen's proposed Statewide smoking ban garnered the kind of reaction you would expect. The State Health Commissioner and representatives of the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association strongly support the proposed ban. Representatives of the Smokers' Club of Knoxville and Leaf and Ale (a great store, by the way, for beer lovers as well as cigar smokers) were opposed, though the owner of the Leaf and Ale was not against a ban in certain places, but he felt it should be the decision of businesses to make-this is my own position.
What caught my ear, however, was not the discussion over the proposed ban, but the honest answer from a University of Tennessee Extension Agent about what crop was best to replace tobacco in East Tennessee. The UT doctor present didn't like his honest answer:
"The best crop to replace tobacco for farmers is more tobacco."
The Extension Agent was right on.
Those of you who have paid close attention to the song Rocky Top might remember the lines:
Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt's too rocky by far
That's why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.
In much of East Tennessee, especially Upper East Tennessee, the soil is entirely too rocky to grow anything in large quantities. Some farmers grow corn in small amounts, and Grainger County is particularly known for tomatoes, but nothing can be grown in quantities large enough to provide the small farmer with a decent income on such hard soil with the exception of one crop: Tobacco, which thrives even on this rocky ground.
Tobacco has given rural East Tennessee a measure of economy the area otherwise never would have enjoyed without the crop. The "leaf" has given families a livelihood, sent children to college, allowed families that would otherwise not have much to pass land down for generations, and even provided the money to start the public careers of some of Tennessee's best-known political figures. It has been the life-blood of Tennessee's agricultural economy in the post-Reconstruction era. In other parts of the State, it is very easy to tell farmers to switch to another crop-the soil and climate are more friendly to such a move. In the East Tennessee mountain country, however, it is pretty much tobacco or bust if you are into raising crops to make a serious living.
If you ever talk to anyone in East Tennessee who either raises tobacco or has a tie to tobacco (and the latter group encompasses a whole lot of folks in rural East Tennessee) no one is under the illusion that tobacco is the world's healthiest product. Old-timers, however, often point to the fact that either they or their families have smoked or chewed for years-and in some people you see the obvious health effects, while many others live to a ripe old age and are in perfect health. Doctors around here have never been able to explain this common phenomenon.
Perhaps the biggest concern about the Governor's proposals is his dramatic tobacco tax increases. He and his cabal seem Hell-bent on destroying tobacco as a way of life in this State. Grand if you want to turn our mountains and farmland into a giant industrial park, not so good if you want to preserve our heritage as a people. While I do not believe the Governor will be successful in his attempt to destroy East Tennessee agriculture, I think much of the problem comes from the fact that we have a man who went from being the Mayor of Nashville to being Governor. He has no idea (nor does he seem to care) who and what he is hurting. Whether the Governor's smoking ban and tobacco taxes pass or fail, tobacco and the tobacco industry in Tennessee will survive. The difference will be that as the taxes and prohibitions increase, tobacco will be more likely to become the purview of the major corporate farm processing operatives, somewhat like ADM. The higher the taxes, the more likely it will hurt the small farmer.
Not that the Governor gives a damn.
Labels: Tennessee politics