06/04/04 — Tobacco movie leaves audience nostalgic

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Tobacco movie leaves audience nostalgic

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on June 4, 2004 2:01 PM

FREMONT -- Most of the 40 people who gathered Thursday night at the Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace to watch a documentary about tobacco farmers were farmers.

Many had worked in tobacco.

But when asked, after the film, how many now grow the crop, only one person raised her hand.

It was an interesting fact, considering the documentary focused not only on tobacco farming's past and present, but on what appears to be a bleak future.

Titled "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family," the film was directed by Cynthia Hill, a Pink Hill native. Ms. Hill spent three years visiting with three tobacco farmers. In her documentary, she told their stories, as well as her own.

Now a pharmacist and filmmaker living in Durham, she grew up helping family and friends with their crops. For her, tobacco brings back fond memories -- and concerns about what it does to people's health.

She understands those concerns, but also understands the plight of the farmers.

One of them -- Melvin Croom, now retired, of Kinston -- joined her and Melinda Maynor, a filmmaker and doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of the panel that talked with the audience after the screening.

Ms. Maynor served as the panel's moderator.

Ms. Hill cares about the effect that tobacco and its decline have had on North Carolina and tobacco-growing communities, Ms. Maynor said. The message in her film is that, regardless of the health concerns, tobacco is a crop that did a lot of good for the state.

During the discussion, audience members, most of whom do not smoke, questioned whether smoking would stop if farmers in the United States stopped growing tobacco. The documentary states that less than 10 percent of the tobacco grown in the world is grown in this country.

They also discussed the economic concerns farmers face. During the time Ms. Hill made the film, quotas were cut 18 percent a year, meaning that, by the third year, farmers' income from the product was dramatically reduced.

"I don't see anything that looks good for the tobacco farmer in North Carolina," Croom said.

Cordell Sasser of Patetown was among the audience members. He farmed tobacco for 30 years and then raised hogs for 10 years. Now retired, he said that, in its better days, tobacco bought farmers their homes, put their children through college and built this city.

Now homes are being built on land where tobacco used to be grown.

Sasser and Croom both expressed a love for farming.

When asked whether the negative effect of smoking on people's health might make him hesitant to farm tobacco again, Sasser said it might. He said he quit smoking due to health problems and became healthier when he did.

But, he added, there are other products that also damage people's health, such as whiskey and beer.

Buyouts were discussed, as was the attitude of politicians toward tobacco farmers. The expense of farming and the growth of large farms and their effect on small farms were also brought up.

The discussion reflected one of the messages in the film: Tobacco farming's place in American life has changed dramatically.