Article Text

Predictors of crop diversification: a survey of tobacco farmers in North Carolina (USA)
1. David G Altmana,
2. Daniel J Zaccaroa,
3. Douglas W Levinea,
4. David Austinc,
5. Carol Woodellc,
6. Betty Baileyb,
7. Michael Slighb,
8. Gerry Cohnb,
9. James Dunnb
1. aThe Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Department of Public Health Sciences, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, bResearch Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, cRural Advancement Foundation International, Pittsboro, North Carolina
1. Dr DG Altman, The Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Department of Public Health Sciences, Medical Center Boulevard, Winston-Salem, North Carolina 27157-1063, USA;daltman{at}rc.phs.wfubmc.edu

## Abstract

OBJECTIVE To assess the attitudes and behaviours of North Carolina tobacco farmers around crop diversification.

DESIGN Cross-sectional telephone survey.

PARTICIPANTS Active tobacco farmers in 14 North Carolina counties (n = 1236), interviewed between January and April 1997 (91% response rate).

OUTCOME MEASURES Interest in, experience with, and perceived barriers to diversification.

RESULTS Most farmers (95%) grew/raised a commodity other than tobacco (mean = 2.8). A total of 60% of farmers expressed interest in trying other on-farm activities to supplement their tobacco and 60% reported taking action in the past year around supplementation. Younger age and college education were positively associated with interest. College education, off-farm income, and larger farm size were associated with the number of actions taken. For perceived external barriers to diversification, use of tobacco, percent income from tobacco, lack of college education, and younger age were most strongly associated with the number of barriers. For internal barriers (personal factors), percent income from tobacco, use of tobacco, and lack of college education were most strongly associated with the number of barriers.

CONCLUSIONS Most farmers were involved in diverse operations and expressed interest in continuing to diversify, although the breadth of diversification was narrow. Farmers noted many barriers to diversifying. If conventional production and marketing techniques are employed for non-tobacco alternatives, these alternatives may not provide the sustainable profitability that tobacco has afforded. Competition from foreign tobacco growers is the primary threat to the future of American growers and tobacco dependent communities.

• tobacco farmers
• crop diversification

## Statistics from Altmetric.com

Tobacco use is the leading cause of premature death and disability in both developed and developing countries.1-6 Tobacco production is a key contributor to the agricultural economy of many of the same countries that experience a burden from tobacco-induced illness. Exploring one aspect of the conflict between tobacco production and public health is the focus of the current study. In this study, we report data from extensive telephone interviews of over 1200 North Carolina tobacco farmers. To our knowledge, a survey of this size has not been implemented previously.

### EXPERIENCE WITH AND ATTITUDES TOWARD DIVERSIFICATION

We asked respondents a series of detailed questions about their experience with the production of commodities other than tobacco. Most farmers (95%) reported growing or raising a commodity other than tobacco on their farm in the past year. Regarding farmers interest in “trying other on-farm activities to supplement their tobacco income,” 28% reported being “very interested” and 32% reported being “somewhat interested.” Likewise, 60% of respondents reported that they or a member of their family who lived on the farm took action in the past year to “specifically learn more about supplementing [their] tobacco income”. Actions included such things as requesting written material about supplementing their tobacco income, attending a meeting about supplementation, and attending a farm demonstration of supplemental crops or methods. Likewise, we asked farmers whether in the past year they had “applied for loans, grants, or other money to support efforts to supplement their tobacco income”: 26% reported doing so.

Experience with non-tobacco commodities.

The figure provides data on the most frequently mentioned non-tobacco commodities grown or raised by the 1236 farmer respondents. The nine commodities listed on the figure represent 90% of all the non-tobacco commodities grown or raised by respondents. The first bar indicates the percentage of respondents who grew or raised the commodity in the past year. The second bar indicates the percentage of respondents indicating whether the commodity was raised profitably. The third bar indicates the percentage of respondents who have found a way to process or market the commodity to increase their profits (adding value to the enterprise). The data illustrate that field crops are the most widely grown non-tobacco commodity, although this probably reflects in part the need to rotate tobacco with other field crops so as not to deplete the soil. Most farmers report that non-tobacco commodities are profitable, although few have found ways to process or market these commodities in ways that increase their value and profitability.

In addition to the nine commodities listed in the figure, 333 attempts were made to grow or raise other non-tobacco commodities in the past year. These commodities included a variety of other types of livestock, grains, and fruits and vegetables. Of the total of 333 attempts, 199 (60%) were reported as profitable. Of these, 114 (34%) reported to have found ways to process or market these commodities to add value. Across all of the non-tobacco supplements mentioned by respondents, the mean number of enterprises attempted was 2.8 (SD 1.3; median = 3; range: 0–5).

We also asked a question about farmers awareness of other farmers in their county who are making profits from the production of non-tobacco commodities. In response to the question: “In the past year, do you know tobacco farmers in your county who have tried new agricultural activities other than tobacco that were profitable,” 50% responded “yes.”

Respondents were also specifically asked about nine barriers, two internal and seven external, that might interfere with their ability to supplement or replace their tobacco income with other on-farm ventures. As noted in tables 1 and 2, these barriers were salient to many of the farmers interviewed. Table 2 provides descriptive data by subgroup (for example, farm size, tobacco use, education, off-farm income, age) for questions on barriers to supplementation, stated interest in supplementation, and actions to seek loans or grants to supplement tobacco income. Table 1 presents the odds ratios and confidence intervals for unadjusted and adjusted logistic regression analyses for the same independent and dependent variables reported in table 2.

Table 1

Survey responses for diversification outcomes (odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals)

Table 2

Survey responses for diversification outcomes (% response)

We also ran multiple linear regression analyses for indices with interval level outcomes. For the barriers questions, we regressed the number of barriers (0–2 for internal barriers, 0–7 for external barriers) against the same independent variables noted in table 1. For the internal barriers analysis (mean = 1.4, SD 0.7), tobacco use (β = 0.20, p<0.0001), percent income from tobacco (β = 0.28, p<0.0007), and lack of college education (β = −0.13, p<0.01) were significant predictors of the number of internal barriers mentioned (multiple r 2 = 0.048). For the external barriers analysis (mean = 5.0, SD 1.7), use of tobacco (β = 0.52, p<0.0001), percent income from tobacco (β = 0.39, p<0.04), lack of college education (β = −0.30, p<0.014), and age (β = −0.13, p<0.02) were significant predictors of the number of external barriers mentioned (multiple r 2 = 0.048).

As noted previously, farmers were asked a series of seven questions about activities they had taken to learn about diversification. In a multiple linear regression that predicted the number of activities taken (range: 0–5, mean = 1.4, SD 1.6)) and using the same independent variables used in the logistic regression analyses reported in table 1, we found that having a college education (β = 0.408, p<0.0004), larger farm (β = 0.004, p<0.0008), and off-farm income (β = 0.25, p<0.03) were significant predictors (multipler 2 = 039).

## Conclusions

In this study, we found that most North Carolina tobacco farmers living in 14 counties with high tobacco production expressed interest in supplementing their tobacco income with non-tobacco commodities. Likewise, the majority have taken at least one action in the past year to learn more about supplementation. A high percentage of farmers reported growing or raising non-tobacco commodities, although a relatively smaller percentage reported profitability from these non-tobacco enterprises and very few found processing or marketing innovations that added value and profitability. The fact remains that as a whole, no other commodities can generate the profits per acre that tobacco produces.14 There are case studies of individual tobacco growers makingcomparable profits growing or raising other commodities15-19 but without huge investments in the rural infrastructure of the tobacco south, the scale of these alternatives is insufficient to entirely replace tobacco.9

Here, we summarise some of the key findings of this study, focusing primarily on the significant findings from the adjusted multivariate logistic and linear regression models. For interest in diversification, younger age and college education were positively associated with interest. For taking action around diversification, college education, off-farm income, and larger farm size were significant predictors of the number of actions taken. For applying for loans, younger age was the only significant predictor. For the questions about barriers to diversification, there are too many questions to summarise succinctly. However, looking across barriers, it is evident that for external barriers, younger age, use of tobacco, and lack of college education were most strongly associated with reporting barriers. For internal barriers, older age and lack of college education were most strongly associated with reporting barriers.

An overall impression of these data might be that younger, more educated farmers who do not personally use tobacco are more likely to be interested in diversification and perceive fewer internal barriers to diversifying (such as their own skills and interests) and more external barriers (lack of low interest loans or grants and processing plants, for example) than other subgroups. It may be that older growers are more likely to be committed to maintaining the status quo, or simply hanging on, until they retire. Likewise, less educated growers might have fewer internal resources and skills to adapt to major changes in the status quo and thus are more concerned about their ability to succeed in a more diversified economy that might require new knowledge and skills to succeed. The fact that use of tobacco was significantly related to perceiving barriers to diversification was a surprise initially.

Upon reflection, however, we interpreted this finding as suggesting that individuals who are involved in both the production and personal use of tobacco have a different set of attitudes and beliefs as compared with those who are involved in production alone. Personal use of tobacco may well result in a higher level of commitment to, defensiveness about, or psychological investment in, tobacco. That said, however, we did not find that personal use of tobacco influenced being interested in diversification or engaging in actions to learn more about diversification.

Policies that promote rural development, agricultural sustainability, and diversification are ultimately good medicine for the American tobacco grower. Indeed, the future of American tobacco production is uncertain in light of projected decreasing worldwide demand for American grown tobacco, due to its higher cost relative to tobacco produced by other countries. In addition, changes in the Tobacco Price Support Program that might occur as a result of a tobacco settlement or other legislation could put many smaller American growers out of business. That said, this is not a new issue—large-scale change in tobacco farming has been occurring for many decades.11 In the southern United States where tobacco is grown, its importance to the economy has declined over time, though it still remains important. In North Carolina, for example, the contribution of tobacco to the state’s agricultural economy has declined from nearly 60% of total farm income in 1950 to 20% in 1992.20 The contribution of tobacco to the gross state product declined from 11.3% in 1963 to 7.8% in 1993.20 Likewise, about 1% of the employed population in North Carolina work directly in tobacco farming, processing, and manufacturing sectors and another 1% own tobacco quota that generates rent or lease income.20 These data are consistent with the trend of declining tobacco acreage and production—from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, tobacco production in North Carolina declined nearly 30% and tobacco acreage declined over 42%.20 Across the entire tobacco region, between 1964 and 1992, the number of tobacco farms has decreased 62% (from 330 000 124 000).11 From 1982 to 1992, the last 10-year period for which data are available, the number of tobacco farms declined by 50 000.11 And, from 1997 to 1998, it is projected that the effective flue-cured tobacco quota will decrease by approximately 20%.21

Foreign tobacco production is the primary threat to American growers: over the past 25 years, the amount of imported tobacco used in cigarettes manufactured in the United States has increased from 2% to more than 33%20 and foreign countries have invested substantial resources in tobacco production to meet the unfortunate increase in worldwide demand. In Zimbabwe alone, land used for tobacco production was expected to increase over 17% between 1996 and 1997.22 As a result, American tobacco growers will experience increasing pressure to supplement their tobacco income with other enterprises, or quit farming tobacco altogether. A survey of tobacco farmers in the southeast found that 51% were “interested in trying other on-farm ventures to supplement tobacco income”.23 Data reported in the current study are consistent with this finding as over 60% of North Carolina farmers reported being interested in supplementation.

Building political support for an investment in sustaining rural communities, perhaps through an increase in excise taxes on tobacco with earmarking for rural development and agricultural diversification, would be an important step in this regard. Until 1997, this seemed an unlikely scenario. Indeed, one reason why policymakers and health professionals have historically paid little attention to tobacco farmers may be a lack of knowledge about tobacco farmers and tobacco-dependent communities.24 The United States tobacco price support and production control programme, for example, is complex and difficult to understand.9 10 Moreover, health professionals have been disturbed by the fact that tobacco farmers and tobacco manufacturers have combined political forces at federal, state, and local levels to resist strong, pro-health, tobacco-related legislation.

In the current policy environment for tobacco control, however, the interests of tobacco farmers and those of the tobacco manufacturers are not necessarily the same. In response to perceived threats by tobacco growers from a proposed tobacco settlement and a willingness of a small group of health professionals to establish relationships with growers and grower groups, an unparalleled collaboration designed to reduce tobacco consumption and promote sustainability in rural communities formed.25 This collaboration, spearheaded initially by the Southern Tobacco Communities Project, resulted in articulation of “core principles” to which growers, health professionals and community organisations signed (signatories included such organisations as the American Public Health Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, American College of Cardiology, Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, Inc., Flue-Cured Tobacco Stabilization Corporation, National Black Farmers Association, among many others). The core principles included health goals (such as FDA regulatory authority) and agricultural goals (for example, maintaining the Tobacco Price Support Program at no taxpayer cost). These efforts, combined with public support for policies that promote public health and protect rural farming communities historically dependent upon tobacco income,26 are indicative of new opportunities for collaboration between public health and agricultural organisations. There are signs that this collaboration, combined with the unwillingness of tobacco companies to include farmer interests in the initial June 1997 tobacco settlement altered the historically strong relationship between tobacco manufacturers and tobacco growers. In addition, the fact that manufacturers and leaf dealers are increasingly purchasing less American tobacco has made American growers resentful and suspicious. Whatever the outcome of current tobacco policy negotiations, it is clear that in the absence of support from growers, the political power of manufacturers will be reduced.

Data reported in our study of over 1200 North Carolina tobacco farmers can help inform current and future policy debates about tobacco control. In particular, it provides a perspective from tobacco farmers themselves about factors related to their interest in and ability to diversify their farming operations so as to become less dependent on tobacco. On the topic of diversification, the data are mixed. On the one hand, most farmers are involved in diverse operations expressed interest in continuing to diversify, although we found that the breadth of diversification was rather narrow. Farmers noted many barriers to successfully diversifying, however, and whether non-tobacco commodities can ultimately provide sustainable profitability is a question worthy of additional study. Indeed, regardless of whether there is a tobacco settlement or other legislation that changes the nature and profitability of tobacco production, the reality is that competition from foreign tobacco growers, who have been provided assistance and resources from American tobacco manufacturers, is the primary threat to the future of American growers and tobacco dependent communities. Meanwhile, many millions of tobacco users throughout the world die prematurely each day. As public health professionals, we believe that it is important to both eliminate tobacco-induced disease and, through diversification, promote the sustainability, and health, of thousands of rural communities historically dependent upon tobacco income.

## Acknowledgments

This study was supported by grant NIH RO1 CA67838-02 from the National Cancer Institute.

## References

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