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A Challenge to the Companies

by: Darrell Varner, President Council for Burley Tobacco

The Council for Burley Tobacco has made great strides in engaging the companies and opening the lines of communication between farmers and company leadership in the last few years.  

In May several members attended and spoke on behalf of burley farmers at both the PMI and Altria annual stockholders meetings and following the meetings had the opportunity to speak with company leadership about grower issues.  BAT/RJR representatives, Robbie Parker and Mamie Sutphin, attend the Council summer board meeting at Blue Licks State Park.  In late July several board members met with Universal Leaf representatives Clay Frazier and Mike Ligon in Northern Kentucky.

In all these meetings we have discussed the key issues facing tobacco farmers such as increasing costs, weather challenges, pending FDA legislation that would impact the industry, and of course stagnant pricing. While I know the Council’s efforts to engage with tobacco company leadership has helped raise awareness of the issues our farmers are facing, I admit this summer I have become frustrated.

I see the heads nod at the shareholders meetings when I talk about the desperate times farmers are facing on the tobacco farmers. I hear concerned comments from leadership when we explain how the gross price for our product is below the same price in 2003. I even believe the concern from some of the companies when they say they want to keep our American burley farmers, as we explain to them that the quality farmers will be gone in a few years if nothing changes.  

I am tired though of just sitting around a table and talking. The concerned comments and head nods will not fix the crisis we are facing in the tobacco industry. Changes in nicotine delivery and accelerated decline in cigarettes consumption will not allow stable volumes or price increases unless the entire supply chain system is drastically changed. At the meetings this summer we have told company leadership that we want to be more than price takers, we want to be partners. Now that we have the doors open to our companies it is time to do more, our farmers deserve more.

I challenge the companies to bringing farmers to the table to do more than talk, let’s work on a plan.  Let’s create a plan together that offers a sustainable environment for farmers, who want a future in tobacco, and a plan that will provide the companies the quality product and commitment they need from farmers. A viable plan that provides tobacco farmers that remain with what we need to survive, an increase in prices and stabilizing volume.


Tobacco farmers who want a future in the burley industry will change production to meet the new reality that is coming. Our farmers can provide a GAP certified, a source-verified, and FDA compliant product grown in a sustainable manner that adheres to labor standards at all levels.  Yet, meeting these standards come at a price and companies have to step up and compensate farmers making the change. By creating partnerships with the family farmers who are providing a FDA compliant, traceable and environmental sustainable product is the picture of corporate social responsibility.

I am optimistic companies will accept our challenge to map out a sustainable future for burley growers, but we are not going to sit and wait. We are at a time of crisis and we need action, no more just talking about the issues. The Council is working with our flue-cured partners, North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association, and other tobacco leaders on the issues. We know we will never go back to the time when tobacco was king of agriculture in our states, but we are working to provide a path for farmers who are willing to change to meet the new demands of the industry.

I encourage all tobacco farmers—burley, flue-cured, and dark—to stay engaged in the discussion and share your story with us and your company contacts and we all work together to create a sustainable future for our tobacco farmers.

Published: August 2019 in Farmers Pride

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