As Tri-Cities tobacco production wanes, local farm still growing yearly crop

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tobacco was once a premier crop among farmers in the Tri-Cities.

Since then, major changes to the tobacco industry have gone into effect, prices have dropped and labor and production costs have increased.

As a result, the number of tobacco farmers in the Tri-Cities have decreased.

However, that is not stopping one Johnson City family who has been growing the crop for centuries.

Since the late 1700s, the Crouch family has been farming at Oak Hill Farm.

Father and son duo Larry and Jason Crouch now oversee the operation.

“My dad usually likes to say it’s a 13-month out of the year job,” said Jason Crouch. “Once you’re wrapping up the crop from this year, you’re already planning and trying to get things organized for the next season.”

This year, Crouch said the lack of rainfall in the hottest parts of July and August allowed the plants to become more stressed.

“Probably didn’t do as well in the field as we would’ve hoped this year,” he said. “It burnt up a little bit in the field and lost some weight and some of the lower leaves there.”

Crouch hopes to produce and bale-out 100,000 lbs of tobacco this year, but with the season the Tri-Cities has seen so far, the farm may fall short.

Right now, Oak Hill Farm is in the process of stripping and baling this year’s crop to get it ready for market.

The farm is in contract with both Burley Stabilization Corporation and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Burley tobacco has always been the type of tobacco grown in the Tri-Cities, but the number of farmers growing it have decreased over the years, according to Anthony Shelton of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension in Washington County.

“You had talked 20 years ago and you couldn’t drive two miles without seeing tobacco here, there and everywhere,” he said, “you have to really get off the beaten path to find tobacco fields now.”

Shelton said the market for tobacco changed in 2004 with the “Tobacco Transition Program,” also known as the “Tobacco buyout.”

Prices that were once federally-controlled, now shifted to in-depth contract systems.

In addition to lowered consumption and increased production costs, he said tobacco prices fell, making profitability more difficult to obtain for smaller-scale farmers.

“You have to have a really good crop doing the labor yourself to really make those profits nowadays with that big price change,” said Shelton.

Shelton said about a fourth of the people in the region growing tobacco 10 years ago are still growing today.

“As long as the companies will buy it, we’ll try to grow some,” said Crouch.

Shelton said most of the Tri-Cities’ tobacco production is found in the lower part of Washington County, Greene County and a few spots in Sullivan County.

Region-wide, most of the burley tobacco production and purchasing is found in middle Tennessee and Kentucky.

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