For Today's Tobacco Farmers, It's Diversify or Die
"A lot of the burley farmers depend on what we're trying to do," said Brian Furnish, who helps run a five-state tobacco co-operative that tries to sell millions of pounds of tobacco in foreign markets. He travels 100,000 miles a year to places like China, Egypt, Indonesia and Eastern Europe. "We have a lot of people depending on us to try to create new markets."
It's diversify or go out of business. The major U.S.-based tobacco companies are buying less, and that has made it a lot more difficult for farmers to make a living.
For the first time in years, Todd Clark is going to auction with about one-quarter of his crop still without a buyer. Selling it will be the difference between profit and loss.
"This year in particular, they (tobacco companies) reduced their contracts," Clark said. "It feels like sometimes we're in the dark as producers as to what the next move is."
As Furnish has doubled down on tobacco and has turned into a salesman, Clark has become a 21st century farmer, diversifying his crop. He now raises cattle, chickens and sells hay.
But in spite of all the issues, involved, it's still worth the headaches and risks for Clark and for Furnish.
"Tobacco's been the backbone of our economy in Kentucky for over 100 years," Furnish said. "It's still the number one cash crop.
"There's no replacement for it."