In late August in Browns Summit, north of Greensboro, the last, straggling leaves of stripped tobacco stalks have marked the end of the year's harvest for rural families for generations. This year, weeds carpet unplanted fields, marking instead the dramatic impact of tariffs and global politics on North Carolina's $87 billion agriculture economy.
All crops are affected, but experts say tobacco, the state's largest cash crop for three centuries, has been hit hardest, with plummeting acreage and prices and recently the loss of its biggest customer. China, targeted in a bitter trade war by the Trump administration, scaled back imports of Tar Heel leaf in 2018, then retaliated with a complete ban on U.S. agricultural commodities.
"In 2017, we exported from North Carolina $162 million in tobacco to China," says Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, a not-for-profit with 50,000 farmer members. "In 2018, we exported $4 million," a figure likely to drop to zero this year.
Tobacco is about a $700 million annual crop for the state, but planting fell from a modern-era high of 192,000 acres in 2014 to 122,000 this year. That's the lowest amount since the 1930s, Wooten says. Production has declined in a similar pattern, adds Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Raleigh-based Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina. The state has about 2,000 tobacco farms.
North Carolina has the land and infrastructure to produce 1 billion pounds a year, but contract volume this year is 270 million, down from 500 million in 2014, Boyd says. Because of its health stigma, tobacco was specifically exempted from the Trump administration's $12 billion in bailout payments that began last fall to ease the impact of the tariff war on U.S. farmers. (The bureaucratic term is "market facilitation payments.") North Carolina farmers overall received about $105 million through July. Boyd fumes that the Chinese and Trump administration have turned tobacco into a pawn in the tariff disputes.
In the 1990s--when general farm subsidies were abandoned --and again in 2004, when tobacco's...