Thank you for growing tobacco

Luigi’s post on the perils of tobacco farming prompted a couple of thoughts. One is the old stuff about the ancient drugs being socially acceptable only because they have been around and in use by the ruling western hegemony for a long time. If anyone tried to introduce booze and cigarettes today they wouldn’t stand a chance. The other is that for the sake of consistency we really ought to advocate small-scale tobacco farming in Kentucky as vociferously as we advocate poppy growing in Afghanistan.

I was reminded of some very good essays by that very good essayist, Wendell Berry. A tobacco farmer himself, he is eloquent on how tobacco, being both a difficult and a valuable crop, brings out the best in farmers. They have to really understand their farm and the crop to grow a good harvest of fine leaves, and a small acreage of tobacco brings in sufficient income that a lot more land can be left idle. Of course, when big business steps in to squeeze the last drops of profitability from the crop, preferably abetted by government subsidies, the balance shifts.

The situation is particularly wonderful in Europe, which was spending almost 100 times more on subsidies for tobacco farmers as it did on its “Europe against Cancer” campaign. Agricultural subsidies are being phased out, but not for tobacco farmers. More bizarrely yet, there is a “Community Tobacco Fund” that is financed by a levy of tobacco farmers (who get 98% of their income from subsidies); the fund used to research new varieties of tobacco and alternative uses for tobacco. Now it tries to help tobacco farmers switch out of tobacco and to educate the public about the harmful effects of tobacco.

My feeling is that, especially in Kentucky, a high-quality tobacco field is probably, on balance, a good thing. And if it resulted only in high-quality cigars that one might smoke three or four times a year, that would suit me just fine.

I couldn’t find that first essay on the web, but I did uncover an excellent interview with Berry and some papers from a celebration of sustainability with Berry at Iowa State University.1

  1. Pity the podcasts of that are restricted to computers on the ISU network. []

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