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Tough year raising a vanishing tobacco crop

South Boston News
Garland Comer and migrant workers in Vernon Hill. / July 23, 2020

Tobacco in the fields hasn’t grown to its normal height — the result, growers say, of erratic weather that has stunted this year’s crop.

It’s not the only way the tobacco industry is shrinking in Southside Virginia.

Once a mainstay of the Halifax County economy and a primary source of income for hundreds of farm households, tobacco production has fallen to the lowest level on record this year, with a mere 26 growers farming 1,312 acres. It’s a big stepdown from three years ago, when Halifax tobacco producers farmed 1,745 acres, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture.

Tobacco’s vanishing act is even more pronounced when viewed over the course of the past two decades-plus. In 1997, the year before cigarette companies entered into the Master Settlement Agreement with 46 state attorneys general, Halifax County growers harvested nearly 9,000 acres of tobacco, roughly seven times this year’s acreage. The term “golden leaf” was an apt one, with farm households reaping nearly $30 million in tobacco income.

By contrast, total sales of tobacco were $8.2 million in 2017, and sales will fall well short of that level this year.

Garland Comer of Vernon Hill, one of the few county producers who has stuck with tobacco, blames its decline on a variety of factors — the loss of the old quota-based market system, which long ago was supplanted by direct contract sales to cigarette makers, and the shift in consumer preferences towards e-cigarettes and vaping devices.

Amid the long-term decline, however, a more immediate concern is uppermost in the minds of most growers this year — how to counter the harsh conditions that have bedeviled their tobacco fields.

“The weather has been crazy — we’ve had all four seasons in three months,” said Comer, who tends 280 acres of tobacco at his Vernon Hill operation, Lazy C Farms. “The spring was hot, there was a late frost, then it was dry and cold, followed by two 10-inch rainfalls, and now we are in a drought.”

The unpredictable weather has contributed to smaller-than-usual tobacco plants, many growing about a foot shorter than their normal height. The diminished size will result in approximately 300 pounds less tobacco per acre when the crop is harvested this summer and fall.

On the other end of Halifax County, Steven Bowen of Virgilina is struggling to keep his tobacco crop from dying due to drought. Working with Mother Nature is a gamble every year, but the 2020 season has been more fickle than most. Bowen has been keeping an eye on the weather forecast, with predictions of isolated scattered thunderstorms cropping up over the past two weeks, but the blazing hot skies have offered no relief for his crops.

“We are moving three irrigation systems around the clock,” said Bowen, who is growing 120 acres of tobacco along with hemp, corn, and beans at his operation, Bowen Family Farms LLC.

Typically, farmers would begin to harvest tobacco the first week in July, but the crop was planted later than usual due to the delay of migrant workers arriving from Mexico. Comer has harvested only a quarter of his tobacco crop.

“We are a month late and will start to harvest next week. We usually start the harvest on July 4,” said Comer.

Bowen said he hopes to begin pulling tobacco next week, too. “Just waiting on the rain,” he said.

The grueling work of pulling tobacco leaves off stems and storing the crop in curing barns for ripening has long been handled by migrant workers from Mexico. Growers who take part in the H-2A program for temporary agricultural employment of foreign workers say the migrant workers are essential to the success of their operations. In Halifax County, most migrant laborers have worked the same lands for decades, and some growers say they consider the Mexican farmhands to be part of their extended families.

The arrival of H-2A workers was delayed this year when the coronavirus shut down the border. Processing of program paperwork has been set back, too, with the suspension of certain functions of the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Now that Mexican field hands have streamed back to Southside Virginia, they, too, can see tobacco is a troubled industry.

“The workers are nervous, they can tell the crops are small. If they don’t produce I will go out of business, and they are out of work,” said Comer.

The job of harvesting tobacco is highly labor intensive, carried out under punishing summer heat. Migrant workers are in the fields eight to ten hours a day. As a stipulation for taking part in the H-2A program, growers must first try to hire locally for the work, but that rarely pans out.

“I’ve had one person who has applied four times, and every year they only last about a month,” said Jennifer Poole, executive secretary for the Virginia Agricultural Growers Association (VAGA), which has worked with local ag producers since 1980 to navigate the complexities of the federal H-2A program.

Under the program, domestic producers agree to pay hourly wages adjusted by region and market conditions — the hourly wage in Virginia is $12.67 — and provide laborers with transportation, housing and utilities. VAGA, which is based locally, arranges the transportation of migrant farmhands from Mexico to Halifax County, then farmers from all across Virginia travel to Halifax to pick up their H-2A workers. Buses usually roll into South Boston two or three at a time, although sometimes as many as eight or nine buses will arrive together. Not this year. “They were really scattered this year due to COVID-19,” said Poole.

While many farmers grouse about the hourly pay that is mandated under the program —migrant workers earn much more here than they would in countries such as Brazil that compete with the U.S. on foreign commodity markets, growers note — they generally concede they’d be sunk without the help of H-2A workers.

“If this ever goes away, I’m out of business,” said Comer, who said he couldn’t pay anyone around here because “nobody will do it.” The program has been a good deal for all involved, he believes. “One of my workers has been able to put a daughter through college receiving doctorate degree and another daughter through nursing school,” said Comer.

With only 26 tobacco producers in Halifax County on record with the Farm Services Agency, according to local director Randy Yarbrough Jr., the number of growers seeking assistance from VAGA has fallen to only 17. All in all, VAGA has 23 members in Halifax County.

“The tobacco growers started VAGA” in 1980, said Poole, but with the long-term decline of the industry, which is accelerating even further this year, the member-based cooperative group is constantly working on new ways to grow its clientele.

“We are reaching out and serving vineyards, nurseries, and livestock owners” to compensate for fewer tobacco farmers, said Poole.

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