05/23/04 — Bowles speaks to farmers

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Bowles speaks to farmers

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on May 23, 2004 2:09 AM

FREMONT -- Farmers from across the state gathered Saturday hoping to hear some encouraging news about the possibility of a tobacco buyout this year.

Music, sweat, cheers and standing ovations were all a part of the day at Jerry West's farm near Fremont as most farmers seemed pleased with what they heard.

Erskine Bowles, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said the buyout can be accomplished and it would pump $6 billion into North Carolina's economy.

"I'm going to fight for you," he told the crowd of over 200 people.

Bowles, a Democrat, served as both the head of the Small Business Administration and as White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton. He has been contacting officials in Washington to explain how important the buyout is to farmers, who have faced a drastic reduction in their quotas.

The quota has already been cut in half since 1997 and farmers could face a 33 percent reduction in their quota in 2005.

Bowles was joined by Rep. Bob Etheridge, who said the hour is getting late for a buyout and Congress has just 52 work days left to pass it in this session. He said there has been more talk in Washington in recent weeks about a buyout, which is a good sign.

There were five different buyout bills in the House and one in the Senate last year, but none reached a vote, Etheridge said. Most bills have called for quota holders to receive $8 per pound and farmers $4 per pound.

The question of whether or not the buyout should be linked to FDA regulation continues to be an issue. Senate members believe that for a buyout to pass, it must be linked to FDA regulation. House members want a buyout without regulation.

Etheridge said that identical bills were recently introduced in the House and Senate that are for FDA regulation of tobacco products. Many farmers believe that a buyout will not pass without regulation. These new bills seem to indicate that House members are beginning to change their minds about having FDA regulation linked to a buyout.

"I do think things are starting to move," he said. "It is my sincere hope that we can make the buyout a reality this year."

He said the buyout is not a partisan issue, but an issue about the economic survival of farm families. Not having the buyout would force some farmers to go broke, he added.

Another issue affecting tobacco farmers is domestic purchase intentions, which continue to drop. The three-year export average has declined and the imported tobacco percentage in U.S. cigarette production is around 55 percent.

The U.S. has around 7 percent of the world market, and Brazil is the number one tobacco competitor. More Brazilian tobacco is being imported into the U.S. each year, and it is exporting more to the same countries that the U.S. exports to.

Richard Johnston and Alfred Parks traveled two hours from Caswell County to hear Bowles and Etheridge speak about the current buyout situation. Both have been tobacco farmers for a long time and are desperate for a buyout to happen soon.

"Something is going to have to be done," said Johnston. "We need one and hope we get it."

Craig West, Jerry West's son, was encouraged by what the officials said and was pleased by how many people attended the meeting. It just shows how important the buyout is to farmers, he added.

The West operation is in its fifth generation and it currently has 130 acres of tobacco. He said the next two or three weeks will be important to get the buyout passed.

"We really need to get it done," he said.