Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Project

Of Lamb, Pig, Poultry & Swamp Fox Grits

We have a woman on our review board,” says Jason Roehrig, program director for RAFI’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, “she’s a Methodist minister, and is fond of pointing out that times of great transition are not times when people take risks.”

Transition is the topic of conversation – specifically, North Carolina tobacco farmers and their transition to new crops and new enterprises in the post-tobacco buyout era.

“What is needed for people to replace tobacco income is some risk-taking,” Roehrig continues. “It’s like putting your money in a savings account in which you’re earning one-and-a-quarter percent interest versus getting out there and investing in the high-tech stocks.

“In order to replace tobacco income, we need some high-tech stock returns on our investments. But during a time when your income is decreasing and the prospects for the future are unclear and uncertain, these are not the times when people go out and invest in high-tech stocks. They’re usually times when people pull their resources in and just hunker down for a while to see what’s going to happen.”

Certainly these are times of transition. According to the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, in 2004, the year of the buyout, North Carolina farmers raised 350 million pounds of tobacco, a figure less than half that of 1997. Post-buyout, quite many small-scale tobacco farmers have had to look elsewhere for income. In 2004 and 2005, a total of 4,000 North Carolina farms were lost.

In confronting this reality, RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA) turned to the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission for funding for the “Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Project.” Each year from 2002 to 2005, the TTFC provided funding for this enormously successful project – successes that are realized in the grassroots of agricultural communities throughout the state and that are in turn reflected in a growing awareness among the rest of us of the value of buying local, eating fresh and supporting an economy and a culture that are fundamental to who we are as a people.

The urgency was clear:

“We think that what’s going to happen if people aren’t looking to new alternatives right now as the generational change happens,” says Roehrig, “is that we’re not going to have new farmers.”

Simply put, Roehrig says, if alternative cash crops to tobacco aren’t found, “we just won’t have farmers and we won’t have farmland in North Carolina.”

Think about it.

RAFI: The mandate

RAFI is dedicated to community, equity and diversity in agriculture. While focusing on the southeastern United States, and North Carolina in particular, RAFI does work beyond as well. A private nonprofit based in Pittsboro, RAFI strives to promote sustainable agriculture; strengthen family farms and rural communities; protect the diversity of plants, animals and people; and ensure responsible use of new technologies.

RAFI offers modest grants (none more than $30,000) through its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund to those North Carolina farmers who were earning tobacco income at the time of the 1998 master tobacco settlement agreement and who today remain in farming.

Each year, several counties are targeted.

“Communities that we’re targeting are those that have historical tobacco dependence,” Roehrig explains, “and where options other than agriculture are limited.”

“We’re trying to comprehensively create the opportunities for family farmers to be successful,” says Roehrig. In North Carolina, he says, that largely translates to assisting with the transition from tobacco.

It translates, for example, to James Worley, whom Roehrig describes as “a fellow who made his living from tobacco and row crops – corn and soy beans were his major income sources.”

There was an old mill near Worley’s farm in Cerro Gordo in Columbus County that hadn’t operated for 35 years, and it had a stone mill in it as well as another piece of equipment that was, by Roehrig’s estimation, a “magical piece of equipment,” called a grit sorter.

Worley was awarded grant money through the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, and he used that money to buy those two pieces of equipment, and he moved them to an old tobacco barn on his farm and started making his own corn meal and grits.

So now, Roehrig says, instead of getting perhaps $4 a bushel for his corn, he’s getting $80 a bushel for the same corn. And he sells his grits right off his farm, or you’ll find them by the register in the little convenience stores and filling stations in Columbus County.

“I, as a Yankee,” says Roehrig, who’s from Pennsylvania, “am permitted to say this: They’re the finest grits in the world.”

It’s all about the sorter, Roehrig insists; it sorts exactly perfect. “It’s an 1880s piece of equipment that he refurbished, and they knew how to sort grits back then – they weren’t going to put up with any cornmeal in their grits. It’s a beautiful product. … and he’s probably making more income than he was getting from his tobacco … and the product really markets itself.”

Swamp Fox Mill Grits, they’re called.

No other way

When it first received funding from the TTFC in the 2002 grant cycle, RAFI was able to ramp up its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund from five projects a year to 20 or more and to bring on a full-time staff person to assist with these projects.

“We have had income from other sources that we’ve applied to this program. But there’s no way we would have been able to [carry on] the program on those other income sources. They help. We have administrative costs for the program that are not covered in the Tobacco Trust Fund grant that we’ve needed to cover, and we have people see what we’re doing in this program, and like it, and provide those resources.”

There’s no question that the resources RAFI in turn applies to North Carolina’s rural landscape render very tangible results. In Bladen County, for example, the fund assisted the Twin Rivers Co-op in marketing its pasture-raised pork.

Among the farmers in that co-op are Harold and Ann Wright, owners of Happy Land Farms, who were selected North Carolina Small Farmers of the Year for 2006 by the Cooperative Extension Program at North Carolina A&T.

“We have the chickens and the turkeys and we do the eggs and the pork,” says Ann Wright as she surveys a field of folks picking her strawberries, which miraculously survived a recent three-night freeze – not only survived it but somehow prospered, plump and sweet.

“We now also do the strawberries and we do all the different vegetables. We have the cabbage, potatoes, onions, beans, watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, eggplants. Then we have the sweet corn. Peppers. And peas.

“We’re farming this year, I think it’s about six or seven hundred acres of land. We own outright about a hundred and some acres and the rest of it we rent.

“We have five children, and all of us are in the business – one business or another. We have a day care business too, Big Bird Day Care.” The Wrights also operate a trucking business, D&H Contracting.

Ann Wright became somewhat of the catalyst when the RAFI grant came through to the Twin Rivers Co-op.

“We were trying to start doing value-added products,” she says, “and what I needed to do with that grant money was to get out and see how we could do that. So first I investigated how we could find the [slaughter] plants that could make the meat look like we wanted it to look like in order to sell … to make it pretty.

“Then we needed other different things – we also needed advertisement, so we used money for advertisement, doing signs. We needed machines to weigh the products, so we purchased that. We needed some information and education about finance and our taxes. So we used part of it for that.

“Now we’re selling our value-added meat to individuals, and that’s working so far.” All of Happy Land Farms pork is now all-natural.

The strawberries are moving well by word of mouth, and the Wrights are also providing them to the schools. They’re making strawberry jelly and pepper relish. They’ve also been experimenting with plasticulture.

The Wright family has been on this land in Bladen County for three generations, but, says Ann Wright, “As we go, we’re learning.”

So what made her want to go to all-natural?

“The real reason is that I took one year and I just ate mostly all-natural. And usually when I would go to my doctor, he’d say come back in two months, three months. But when I went to him after that year that I’d been eating all-natural, he asked me, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been trying to eat all-natural.’ And he said, ‘You need to keep it up. Come back and see me in a year.’ And I thought, ‘If that can happen to me, why can’t it happen to some others.”

Then, of course, there’s the difference in quality.

“Some meats, you don’t even smell them cooking. With our meats, you can sure smell it cooking.”

Whole lot of millionaires?

In 1997, says Roehrig, there were about 12,000 flue-cured tobacco producers in North Carolina, earning a little more than $1.2 billion from tobacco.

“That was a good year – a better year for tobacco than had happened at any other time in that decade – but it was within the normal range of tobacco production in North Carolina.

“Today, I don’t know what our income from tobacco is, it may be $500 million, it may be $700 million; we have to wait till those statistics come out. But I do know that we’ve now got about 3,000 flue-cured tobacco producers in North Carolina.

“So in the last ten years, at least nine or ten thousand tobacco farmers have lost their jobs, they’ve lost their income source.

“Eighty percent of buyout recipients in North Carolina are receiving less than $5,000 per year in buyout money. The perception that there are a whole lot of new millionaires out there … well, there are some millionaires. But it’s definitely the case that those millionaires were very heavily invested in tobacco. By and large, most of the people who were negatively affected by the decline in tobacco production, and then by the elimination of the quota, did not become millionaires.

“I’d love it if somebody gave me $5,000 a year; it’s income that I can reinvest. But when you look at the cost of investing in a new enterprise, that $5,000 is not a lot. If you take some of it out to make up for the income that you no longer have, and just maintain your standard of living at where it was in 1997, and then try to still reinvest in something else that’s going to help you replace tobacco income to create a job for you there on the farm, it’s not a significant amount of money.”

Which is why a modest additional sum of money from RAFI and the TTFC can come in extremely handy. One such non-millionaire who invested wisely is Alan Souther of Alleghany County, up by the Virginia line.

Souther has received RAFI assistance for two projects:

“The first one we did was a project where they provided monies to upgrade my pastures and put in new fencing to start sheep production,” says Souther.

He and his family had been raising tobacco; they still raise a bit: “We’ve raised tobacco all our lives. Last year we had about five acres and we’ll have about the same this year. We used to raise about 20.”

Of the sheep business, Souther says: “It’s gone real well. We’re maintaining about the same numbers that we started with and we sell a lot of replacement ewes to people. We put in the Katahdin breed … you don’t have to sheer them, they don’t have wool. We run about 50 ewes, and they’re grass fed.”

The males are sold for meat, either locally, by word of mouth, or shipped to Pennsylvania.

The other project entailed putting up a greenhouse, “and the goal of that was to be certified organic. We’d always wanted to be an organic farm, or at least partially. So we put the greenhouse up and built it according to specs so that we’d be certified organic in terms of construction – you can’t use any pressure-treated lumber or anything.

“We’ve got a growers group called New River Organic Growers, and I started raising plants for the other growers in the group. I mostly grow a lot of broccoli transplants, and then we do tomatoes and peppers, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and that’s done real well.”

Could Souther have imagined ten years ago that he’d be raising lamb and organic produce? “No,” he laughs. “No.” Times change though, “and we had to find an alternative.

“It’s worked out really well for us.”

A retrofit for brooding

Back in the mid-90s, RAFI’s staff began to foresee the decline in tobacco – though to what extent, they could only guess – and felt that some assistance was certainly going to be in order.

They began to research cost-share programs, including the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture and Research and Education program and a similar successful program in Minnesota.

“We felt like those were good models,” says Roehrig. “From our surveys, what farmers were telling us was that they just didn’t really have any capital that they were willing to take a risk with.

“So in order to spur innovation, and to spur that risk-taking, we thought it was important to provide some capital as a key component of any program.”

Genell Pridgen was a farmer who was poised to take a risk. She and her family operate three farms in Greene County, two of which have been in the family since 1746.

“Our family probably started farming tobacco in the late 1800s,” Pridgen says. She’s been told one of her great-great grandfathers was one of the first couple of farmers to grow tobacco in Greene County. Today her family is no longer growing it.

Pridgen had begun raising some sheep and chickens out in her pasture. Her father, Jeff Garner, had raised chickens off and on for several of the large poultry companies, and, says Pridgen, “When I first started raising these chickens on the ground, he’d say, ‘Oh there’s no difference in the taste; you can’t tell any difference.’

“Well, then I started feeding him some of my chickens, and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh; there really is a difference in the taste.’ Now my mom and dad wouldn’t eat a chicken that came from the grocery store. I mean, they are converts.”

Her dad had recently resumed raising chickens for a large company. “But some of the things he didn’t like were all of the antibiotics they gave him, how they go down through there with the vaccines and just spray the stuff on the backs of the animals and those type things.

“So I said to him, why don’t you stop growing for them and let’s work on building [our own] Rainbow Meadow Farms chicken. And I convinced him to do it.

“We came up with some ideas. I had a tobacco greenhouse that had blown down in the hurricane, and it needed some work. So we got it fixed, and we could put it out in the pastures and cover it with big tarps and put the feed and water out there and instead of growing 75 in a little pen, we could put 500 in each greenhouse frame out in the pasture.

“You don’t move the frame everyday, but you graze them in quadrants around this frame. They start out in an old tobacco barn until they feather out, and then when they’re ready to go out to the pasture they go out to these pasture pens, and you graze them a week in each quadrant and then they should be ready to go to market.

“We’ve grown to where we’re slaughtering 1,300 a batch, and that’s every two weeks, and we’re going up: the next batch will be 2,000. So we’ll be doing about 1,000 chickens a week.

“We’ve picked up a grocery store, some more health food stores, several more restaurants…. I’m getting calls from as far away as Charlotte. I’m getting inquiries from Charleston, I’m getting inquiries from Asheville, wanting us to provide them with chicken and pork and lamb.”

With the RAFI money, Pridgen had the tobacco greenhouses retrofitted and put heaters and water inside the tobacco barn for the brooders.

“We also took a tobacco trailer and put a big water tank on it so we can get water out to the chickens. We also bought a walk-in cooler and freezer so we can handle much more volume.

I told mama, ‘I’m raising chickens in pasture and I’m going to market them with Rainbow Meadows Farms’ labels and I’m going to do the best I can, and I might not make as much money as somebody with chicken houses, but I won’t have my life signed over either.

“I’ll figure up and learn and build it up slowly, and I’ll learn how to make a living. But I am not signing over land that’s been in my family since 1746.

“For me, it was a health issue and a taste issue and the whole disgust with the commercial corporate agricultural mess.”

“Our big goal is to work to have only the best tasting breeds and meat that we can. And that’s why we’re raising them on pasture.”

A strategy that works

“If you’re going to give up tobacco, what do you do?” Jason Roehrig asks. “Corn, cotton, soybeans, beef production?

“I was recently doing a presentation at UNC to a world sociology class, and I pulled down the crop budgets from NC State on those commodity crops so that I could show this class that the average corn farmer in North Carolina makes negative $10 per acre if they’re getting average yields with average expenses on an average price here. And beef cattle production is $9 per acre if you have average yields on average costs.

“And then the amazing thing is, we did a grass-fed beef project out in Edgecombe County in 2003, and he’s making $1,400 an acre on his cattle – finished on grass and then doing the direct marketing of the animals himself.

“This is one of the strategies that I feel can be successful for North Carolina farmers, where instead of eight percent of the final value of the food dollar that the average farmer receives, they get 100 percent of that final value. There are a lot of barriers – because of the way our food system has developed – to people doing it all on their own, especially processing barriers. Regulations are not set up for individuals to process meat on their own, and there are a lot of good reasons for that. So there are struggles that people have to overcome in order to do that.”

Again, there’s risk-taking involved. But such are the times.

Patrick Robinette, the above-mentioned grass-fed beef entrepreneur, offers an observation on the value of an organization such as RAFI investing in ventures that may be somewhere short of a sure-thing.

“If a project fails, in a way it’s still a success,” says Robinette. “You’ve got to experiment. You’ve got to try. Something’s always learned. When you get your failures out of the way, you’re one step closer to making it all work.

“So you’ve got to be careful how you define ‘success.’”

The bottom line, though, is that the great majority of projects RAFI funds are successful. Eighty percent of Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund projects continue to earn income three years after the project launch. The message therein is one of engaging in calculated risk-taking ventures.

The people RAFI is reaching out to with its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, says Roehrig, are mostly folks with a genuine entrepreneurial nature – and with nearly as many ideas as acres to cultivate.

“There isn’t just one strategy,” Roehrig says, “there are hundreds of strategies. This grass-fed beef example is just one. There are hundreds of different strategies for earning more income on the farm that are appropriate to different scales of agriculture and to different skill sets.”

Alan Souther says: “I had another brainstorm on something that we could do, that we would need help funding.

“We have an aging horse that’s in her 20s and she’s got arthritis.” It got him and his family to thinking about setting up a retirement barn for a horse’s last days. He’s never seen such a thing. But thinks it could work. “You’d try to keep them comfortable and cared for and watched with camcorders and stuff like that.” The Southers would put it on their farm, and could charge a fair price for a stay.

It also might help keep his kids on the farm: “They’re ready to quit growing tobacco, all of them.”

Showing the faith

“The way changes in agriculture happen,” says Jason Roehrig, “is that there are farm leaders who drive transition, and these innovators are going to show the way for people who are going to be the second tier. There will be some people who don’t make that second tier, who fall out. With North Carolina’s population increasing the way it is, there are a lot of farms that are going to become houses in the relatively near future.”

Thus the criticality of RAFI’s work.

“The Tobacco Trust Fund showed faith in this program when others did not. And while I believe at this point we’re receiving recognition for the good work that we’ve done – and that possibly others are starting to become interested in the model – it really took the four years of Tobacco Trust investment to be able to show the numbers that would encourage others to take notice.

“So I think the vision of the Tobacco Trust board in recognizing the impacts that small investments can have on farms was important, and other people didn’t have that vision.

“In general, I think the transition in the tobacco economy could go two ways. We could successfully maintain agriculture and small-scale farms as part of the economic base of rural communities.

“Or we could give up on our modest-sized farming operations, and the result will be more houses, more sub-divisions, more of the same.

“And if we do that,” says Roehrig, “I think what we’re saying is that those rural communities and the values representative of the rural communities aren’t important to us anymore.”