Van Grantham is a friend and client who used to grow tobacco in Coffee County. I hope you enjoy excerpts from this article from the 6-19-05 Macon Telegraph
about Van and his older brother Jimmy:The last harvest: As quota system ends, farmers are quitting tobacco
What Van Grantham will miss is the aroma - broad leaves, slowly curing in the barn at the crest of summer, their sugary juices preserved in a product that was the envy of the world.
The smell of south Georgia flue-cured tobacco, done right, was as good as money in the bank.
"You could walk up to a barn, and you could smell it and you could tell what stage it was in," said Grantham. "When you done it 30 years, you can tell what's going on."
Grantham, 48, and his older brother Jimmy, 65, built their lives around tobacco, just like their father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
It was the mainstay and the mortgage-lifter, the lifeblood of the farm. It meant college education for the kids and a retirement check in the autumn of life.
And now it's gone.
The Granthams made their final tobacco crop last year. This year, like about half of Georgia's tobacco farmers, they planted none. Although some farmers are gambling that they can survive without federal price supports, competing without a safety net on the world market, the Granthams and many others have called it quits.
"We just elected not to do it because the profit wasn't there," Jimmy Grantham said.End of the quota system
All of Jimmy Grantham's life, tobacco has held a special place in the shelter of the law.
In 1938, Congress set up a tobacco quota system. It was a lifesaver for Depression-era farmers, holding down production to control supply and guaranteeing a minimum price.
Over time, a farmer's quota became a prize possession, something he could sell, lease or pass down like a family heirloom.
But all of that changed last year when Congress abolished the quota system and offered tobacco farmers a $10.1 billion buyout. Paid for by tobacco companies, not tax dollars, it set up a 10-year plan to compensate quota owners and tobacco producers for the loss of the price support system. Friday marked the deadline to sign up for the buyout.
From now on, a tobacco farmer will contract directly with tobacco companies such as Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds. Moore said contract prices this year are about 35 cents to 45 cents below last year's guaranteed price of $1.85 per pound.Auction time
Jimmy and Van Grantham grew up in Coffee County, in the heart of Georgia tobacco country.
father had three or four acres of tobacco. As he cropped it in stages, he cured the harvested leaves in a stick barn.
"He would put the tobacco in the house after it was cured," Jimmy Grantham recalled. "It was that valuable a crop."
Van Grantham said tobacco auction time used to be like a county fair.
"They would have a parade, a square dance in the street," he said. "All the tobacco buyers would come to town. The Douglas market was the biggest tobacco market in the state."
As the farmers brought their harvest to the cavernous warehouses, it was first-come, first-served.
"The farmers would be lined up with their pickup trucks with three or four tobacco sheets on them. They'd have 'em covered up in case it rained," he said. "It wouldn't be nothing for them to be lined up for a half a mile."
Or to line up a day in advance and spend the night.
"I can remember spending the night on top of the tobacco, sleeping on it," Van Grantham said.
Buyers would walk up and down, grading the tobacco. The auctioneers would make their machine-gun patter.
"Oh, man; as the saying goes, it was music," Van Grantham said.A thousand an acre
Jimmy Grantham was born at the start of the tobacco harvest season of 1940, two years after the quota system was enacted.
Each year, his birthday would find him laboring for spending money under the sweltering sun among the sticky tobacco leaves on his father's farm.
Later he worked at the tobacco warehouse where farmers trucked in their sheets of cured product to be weighed and sold.
In 1958, farming three acres of his own, he made enough money to buy a Pontiac, his first car.
After he married, Jimmy Grantham moved to his wife's family farm near Willacoochee in nearby Atkinson County. Tobacco wasn't their only crop.
They grew vegetables and cotton and raised hogs. But nothing compared with tobacco.
Through the 1970s and beyond, he said, a farmer who did things right and was blessed by the weather could expect to clear $1,000 an acre.
"There is nothing else out there that you can make that much of a return on," he said.
While Van stayed on the Grantham farm in Coffee County and Jimmy farmed near Willacoochee, the brothers helped each other. They shared their hired labor and worked each others' land.
"Jimmy is my brother (but) he's more like a daddy to me," Van said. "He taught me everything there was about tobacco."
Over the years, Jimmy Grantham invested in tobacco quota, buying up acreage from other farmers. He planned to lease out the right to grow tobacco during his retirement years. Now those plans have been overturned. He said the buyout will help offset but not undo the loss.Changing times
Both the Grantham brothers used to smoke. Neither one does today, although when Jimmy is away from the house and the gaze of his wife, Margaret, he likes to hold a wad of tobacco in one cheek.
"Personally I don't advocate smoking," Van Grantham said. "I don't want my boys smoking. The way I've always felt about it, it's freedom of choice.
... I'd a lot rather pass a man coming down (Interstate) 75 smoking a cigarette than a man with a fifth of liquor turned up. (But) I'm not advocating smoking. I'm not endorsing it."'Tobacco was a living'
Last year's Georgia tobacco crop amounted to about 47 million pounds, less than half of the 132-million-pound crop of 1970. Georgia farmers grew it on 23,000 acres, about a third of the 1970 tobacco acreage.
Now the want-ads are full of equipment that can hardly be used for anything but tobacco: tobacco strippers, tobacco balers and barns with built-in heat exchangers for the curing process
Van Grantham said his 84-year-old mother told him recently, "This is the first time she can ever remember tobacco not being grown on her home farm. And she said, 'What are you going to make a living with?' Because tobacco was a living for all of us."
Jimmy Grantham has three sons and Van has two. All the boys help on the farm. The family loves farm life - a way of living where you don't punch a time clock, and you can sit down to eat food that you grew yourself.
But family farms have been dwindling for years. The Granthams say the North American Free Trade Agreement is the latest culprit. American farmers now compete globally with farmers who earn pennies a day.
The Grantham brothers say they wish they could pass along the farming way of life to their boys, but they can't ignore reality.
"I'm going to encourage them to get an education - a college education," Van Grantham said. "And if they want to farm, they can hobby farm. ... The way NAFTA's done us, there's no way to make a living on a farm anymore, especially with tobacco gone. It's just tough nowadays. ...
"It's not a way to make a secure living anymore."