As tobacco market season gets underway, some things to think about

By Gloria Austin –
Reprinted from The News-Record & Sentinel, Marshall, NC
Thursday, November 25, 1999

In the center of Enterprise, Alabama, there is a noble statue of a woman holding aloft an enlarged replica of a boll weevil. Erected in 1919, the statue heralds the issuance of a new prosperity brought to the citizens there after the innocuous -looking insect utterly destroyed their cotton crop one year. A gallant switch to poultry and peanuts proved not only easier to raise, without all the back-breaking work, but actually brought in more money!

There is a moral to this story that farmers would do well to look into. Tobacco has been the major and sustaining crop for Madison County for generations. Now that the government seems to be attacking the crop from all sides because of the medical effects of the plant, maybe we should be looking elsewhere, too.

Environmental Concerns

Mark Carter of the N.C. Geological Survey team in Asheville tells me that in a 1992-96 survey, half the wells and all of the streams contained at least one pesticide. “We need to look after the environment. The landscape needs the ecology of our new ideas: fertilize without synthetics (bacteria, soap, enzymes, chrysanthemums). Use ”I.P.M.” (Integrated Pest Management) for a stronger permaculture. We can alternate beef with grain.”

We are wearing out the soil, planting the same crop year after year. And what happens to our investment if there’s a drought…or a blue mold attack? How much are you spending on fertilizer? How many hours do you spend out in the heat of the fields, checking, pulling and stacking?

According to Newsweek, health and related products have become a $3 billion industry. The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association together with the county agent are showing farmers how to spend less, save more, and make a profit besides. As an alternative, organic farming is now fast becoming the trend of modern farmers. Environmentalists are telling us, ‘”Don’t cut down the trees!” Even Mike Dombeck, Director of the Forest Service, stated recently that he plans to trim only one third of the timber that was originally planned to be harvested in the 1980s. He oversees 30,000 employees who manage 192 million acres of government-owned forest. States are now seeing that tourism blossoms when hikers flourish… and mountain seekers need trees!

Robert Eidus at the local farmer’s market.

The Organic Way

In the high country of Madison County beyond the ghost town of Barnard and the serpentine road that leads to white-water rafting, lies Eagle Feather Farm. Robert Eidus, already known to readers of this newspaper for his tireless advocacy of the raising of ginseng and herbs, gave his assurances from his backwoods paradise on a hot August afternoon during a farm tour. His energies and enthusiasm convince any inquirer to get on the ginseng bandwagon.

“Pesticides? Spraying is poison. We use ladybugs and lacewing wasp larvae, and field horsetail is a natural fungicide. Field mice? Get a cat! Goldenseal and ginseng self-pollinate. They’re perennials. For every 350 seeds in a stratified poiund, you’ll get 83 to 86 percent germination rate next spring. There’s so much land that’s owned by northerners, and it’s not being used. Woods soil is always good soil. If you’ve got at least a 75 percent shade canopy, a steep slope and damp/moist conditions, that’s the best.

“We grow blueberries here, too! But the shade stuff is where the action is! We’ve developed our own formula for amending the soil in the woods using 25 percent vegetable compost and 75 percent pine bark mulch compost, and now we’re looking into gravity and drip-fed irrigation. American ginseng sells for $300 up a pound! Even if you’re not motivated, you’ll make money because this isn’t even full-time work!

“And another thing,” he continues, “Why can’t we grow hemp here? They do it in North Dakota. It’s drought-resistant, and it grows everywhere, even at sea level. You can harvest that almost three times a year! It doesn’t take much to grow thateither.”

Other Possibilities

Madison County could be the quiet, peaceful “bridge” to Asheville. If we had enough bed and breakfasts, tourists could see the sights in the south and return at dusk to relax and hear the crickets. Advertising is key to that success. Or, if you prefer animals, how about raising alpacas or llamas? The fleece is gathered and sold to craftsmen and weavers all over the world for a very profitable return, and the animals are relatively low maintenance and very manageable and good natured. They come in 22 colors!

If we don’t get anxious and overwhelmed by the defeat of tobacco, we might even come together and make a more sizeable profit. If Alabama can do it, so can we. According to the county agent’s office, burley tobacco only brought about $1.90 a pound last year. Maybe there’s something better out there for us all. We just have to have the courage to explore the possibilities.

Gloria Austin is a writer who lives in Madison County.
The News-Record is published in Marshall, N.C. (