Though Steve Dixon no longer grows tobacco, the crop helped him get his start as a farmer in the 1980s. Like many small farmers in Tennessee, a few acres of tobacco supplemented his income until the changing industry made him decide to replace it with something else.
Dixon grew up on a farm, and said one of the first things he did on his own out of school was farm tobacco. His farm in Estill Springs has long since included a diverse combination of row crops, hay and straw, and cattle, but he grew as many as 5 acres of tobacco until the mid- to late-90s. He says that at that point, he could take the farm in other directions and the labor for tobacco became cost prohibitive.
Eventually, the Dixon family added an agritourism business on their farm, Grandaddy’s Farm. Grandaddy’s Farm has pumpkins and other produce, an apple orchard, and a kitchen for making food to sell. Dixon’s sons work hard to offer homemade doughnuts to visitors, he adds.
“We have hay rides at the pumpkin patch. You pick your pumpkin and have a good time when you’re out there, too,” Dixon says.
Tobacco Buyout Means a Changed Industry
The tobacco industry has seen significant moments of transition in the last 20 years. The tobacco master settlement in 1998 required cigarette companies to pay out billions of dollars to the states, and the federal tobacco buyout program in 2005 ended the quota system for tobacco farmers and limits on what they could grow and market. Many small farmers who supplemented their income with a few acres have stopped raising tobacco altogether.
Moore County Extension Agent Larry Moorehead says his county used to have more than 200 tobacco growers. Only one continues to raise the crop today. Jerry Ray used to raise tobacco in Moore County. Like Dixon, Ray raised just a few acres in addition to other crops, but it was an important supplement to his farm’s income. After the buyout, Ray says the prices dropped and it was no longer economically feasible to be a small grower.
Jepson Farms, based in Orlinda, increased tobacco production to achieve the scale needed for the crop to be profitable after the buyout, Willis Jepson says. Though the Jepson family stopped producing burley tobacco after the buyout, they replaced it with dark tobacco. In the late 1990s, the family began increasing the farm’s tobacco production from about 15 acres to about 150 acres today.
“We’re actually growing more tobacco than we’ve ever grown,” Jepson says.
Indigo Fields Crop Up on Former Tobacco Farms
Tobacco is still a significant crop in Tennessee. In fact, more burley tobacco is produced in Macon County than any other county in the U.S. However, a new, unique crop is now making its way into the fields of tobacco farmers. In 2017, the Jepson family began growing indigo for the dye company Stony Creek Colors. Jepson says the company looked for tobacco farmers because the same equipment is needed to set the tropical plant, which is started in a greenhouse in order to be ready to harvest by the end of the growing season.
“There have been some of my neighbors who have quit growing burley tobacco because they have the opportunity to grow indigo,” Jepson says.
It’s too soon to be sure, but Jepson expects to increase the number of acres of indigo the farm grows – going from 5 acres in 2017 to 25 or 30 acres in 2018.