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Tobacco farmers labor to bring in state aid

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Sylvester Curry is the sort of person who makes Florida lawmakers remember why they got elected in the first place. He's a salt-of-the-earth man, a farmer in a worn, dark suit, dirt under his nails, standing at a lectern, asking for help.

'I'm broke, and I've been farming for 40 years," Curry begins, and the buzz of whispered conversation in the room stops. 'I'm nervous to be here. I don't even want to be here. I got a lot more pride than that. I raised five kids. I taught them all to work. It's hard. It's hard to work for something your whole life and turn around and lose it."

He is 62 years old, a North Florida tobacco farmer like his father and grandfather before him, working 20 acres in the tiny community of Jennings near the Georgia line.

'We just need help to get over this hump," he says quietly.

The senators are moved. The committee unanimously passes the bill that Curry came to speak about. It's more than the tobacco farmers got last year, when they barely got a hearing.

As the 2000 Legislature moves into its final weeks, Sen. Richard Mitchell and Rep. Dwight Stansel, both North Florida Democrats, are trying to pass a $66-million relief package for Florida's 286 tobacco-farm families -- just a small fraction of the $13-billion that Florida won from tobacco companies in 1997.

The bills have two more committee stops, the money isn't earmarked in the state budget and Gov. Jeb Bush is cool to the idea. Still, Mitchell and Stansel say it's the right thing to do -- the same way it was right for Florida to help commercial fishermen after the state banned certain fishing nets.

'I hope this doesn't get framed as a tobacco issue," said Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who supports the relief effort. 'What we really have here is an economic issue."

Florida is the only tobacco-producing state that hasn't compensated -- or created a plan to compensate -- its tobacco farmers. Florida is the nation's seventh-largest tobacco producer, with tobacco farms in 20 counties.

While the farmers come to Tallahassee to plead for aid, lawmakers are considering an entirely different kind of tobacco relief effort -- this one to help tobacco companies.

The Legislature is considering ways to help shield the companies from huge lawsuit damages. The state wants the companies to stay afloat so that billions of dollars promised to the state in a settlement with the tobacco industry keep flowing into state coffers.

Into this political hall of mirrors walk Florida's tobacco farmers. At the Capitol, they are shunned.

'I'm naive about politics. Spending time in Tallahassee has been kind of enlightening for me," says Kenneth Dasher, a third-generation tobacco farmer from Live Oak who came to speak with Curry. 'Nobody wants to use the word tobacco. It's worse than some of the most vulgar words in the English language now."

The farmers are in a bind because the federal government controls how much tobacco they can grow and sell. Each year, the government sets quotas, based on the amount of tobacco that cigarette companies predict they will need in a year. With tobacco demand plummeting, the farmers' quotas have sunk to the lowest levels since the Great Depression -- a 45 percent drop in three years.

For North Florida families with mortgaged barns and equipment, bankruptcy looms large. They have received some federal dollars but not enough to repay loans and get out, they say.

'They can't be expected to stay in business when their business is cut in two," Mitchell said.

The relief package includes a low-interest loan program to help farmers pay down their debts, and technical advice to help farmers and tobacco warehouse marketers switch to other crops. It also includes state help finding buyers -- probably foreign -- for their highly specialized equipment. It would provide economic development dollars to the hardest-hit rural counties in North Florida.

'I'm optimistic, but it's going to be difficult," Mitchell says.

Reached by telephone at his farm after a day in the fields, Curry says he wants some state help, but he doesn't want any more loans.

'We don't need loans," he says. 'We just wanted some of that $13-billion where we could pay down this debt and switch to something else."

His children grown, Curry says he would like to switch to small plots of vegetables, maybe squash, maybe corn. He'd like to cut down some of his timber and run beef cattle over the new pasture.

'Here we are in Florida and we can't get hardly nothing, and that ain't fair," he said. 'They done drawed billions off of us, the taxes, the warehouses. We're trying to get out. Ain't nobody going to invest in tobacco no more."

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