Faced with the knowledge that the stalwart money-maker is no longer in their corner, tobacco farmers who gathered for a forum in Smithfield, N.C., tried to look “beyond tobacco” to the future.

They kept coming back to pressing issues in the present, lamenting their loss while discussing the signup for the tobacco quota buyout and hearing about the problems of their burley brethren to the west.

At a farmer’s forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., to gauge how the tobacco buyout signup was going and “looking beyond the period where we are at now,” some 20 farmers sat at tables aligned in a square and voiced their concerns.

The congressman’s staff took notes and North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten moderated the meeting after Etheridge left the meeting due to the death of his mother.

“What’s the next big hurdle?” came the leading question from the congressman’s staff. The answer: Fuel prices and costs of inputs.

“We need some kind of assistance,” said farmer Curtis Creech. “It’s the cost of fertilizer, pesticides — everything goes up — while the price for everything is going down. They’ve got us over a barrel. Agribusiness people need to be curtailed about prices. Enough is enough.

“What are you going to do when farmers go out of business?” Creech asked rherotically. “There’s got to be a stopping point. You think 1929 was bad. It’s heading for a high-priced Depression.”

Pointing to the planned Grain Growers Cooperative biodiesel plant in Mount Olive, Wooten said that renewable fuel sources are probably the best way to address the problem. “Gas prices are going to run us out of business. Net farm income could be down this year because of high fuel prices.”

He believes state mandates that require use of ethanol or biodiesel are an excellent way to encourage the use of alternative fuel sources.

Turning the discussion toward immigration, Wooten said simply, “We don’t have an immigration policy. Right now it’s out of control.”

Farmer Mark Wellon, who hires H2A workers, said the $8.24 wage per hour, plus housing and transportation costs are hurting his ability to survive.

Etheridge’s staff members anticipate a bill, which will be introduced in the summer, would correct part of the problem.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, and U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., reportedly have administration support for a bill that would address the wage rate issue. That will likely become part of a larger bill to address immigration at-large.

“Right now, there’s a real disconnect on farm labor issues,” Wooten says.

Wooten directed the talk toward trade agreements before the group again visited the tobacco buyout. The Farm Bureau president stressed the difference between “selling” and “trade.” He stressed the need for “fair trade agreements” and said that by and large, the Central American Free Trade Agreement would be a boost for North Carolina producers.

“NAFTA has been great for North Carolina pork, poultry and cotton,” Wooten says. “It’s definitely not been good for textiles. Trade agreements are a two-edged sword for a state like North Carolina. We’ve got to look at trade agreements on a case-by-case basis.”

Asked about the effects of the buyout, farmers in the group chimed in, “Some are staying in; some are getting out; and some are diversifying.”

In some counties, more than half of those who grew flue-cured tobacco last year won’t produce a crop in 2005.

To the west in North Carolina’s burley country, farmers are facing the reality of misunderstanding regarding the buyout legislation. Many growers were under the impression that they would be paid based on their 2002 effective quota. But the payout is being based on the effective quota produced. The payments are based on the amount of risk in the production in the years 2001, 2002 and 2003.

“In burley in North Carolina, there’s a real issue,” Wooten told the group of eastern North Carolina farmers. “They’ve had three years of disaster. For a lot of them, the buyout money could be 20 percent to 25 percent less than what they expected.” Farm Bureau is working through U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s office and the USDA to see what can be done, Wooten says.

One farmer in the group claimed that farmers were misled about which years would be used to figure the payments. “2002 was a good working number to base it on.”

Signup for the tobacco quota buyout at Farm Service Agency offices runs through June 17.

“What are we going to turn to?” one farmer in the crowd asked to no one in particular. “How do you take the buyout money and invest in tobacco? When do you cut back and how do you cut back?

“We might need to throttle back for a year or so and come back in a few years,” an older farmer said.

Asked for his thoughts on the first year of change after the tobacco buyout, Charlie S. Batten of Johnston County seemed to sum up the night: “I’ll tell you the 31st of December. Other than that I would be speculating. I’ve got more questions than answers.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com