Keith Parrish has let shoe leather and plain-spoken North Carolina tobacco truth do his talking since he embarked on a crusade to get Congress to pass a tobacco buyout for his fellow tobacco growers.

The collective work of grassroots agriculture and health groups may be about to pay off for tobacco growers. House and Senate conferees will be working out the differences between tobacco buyout bills in conference after they return from August recess.

At times, speaking the truth has meant talking from the heart.

What came out of Parrish’s mouth at a U.S. Senate hearing about the tobacco bill earlier this year would likely send shivers up the spine of an elected official.

Asked what a 30-percent cut in tobacco quota would mean, the Harnett County, N.C., tobacco leader replied, “I wouldn’t want to be a senator or congressman running for re-election in November if the tobacco buyout doesn’t pass.”

Unscripted, the remark reflected the feelings of tobacco farmers who have held out hope for more than six years for a tobacco buyout that would allow some to retire, some to get out of production and some to continue with a future.

Rather than an off-handed remark, it was one made from knowing a situation intimately from his heart.

For the past year, he and Lamar DeLoach, a Statesboro, Ga., tobacco leader, as well as other tobacco leaders, have taken the same message each week to legislators and staff.

The grassroots effort, aided by election-year politics, seems to have paid off, as a tobacco buyout bill is in conference committee after the Senate passed a bill in mid-July. “This is the closest we’ve ever been,” Parrish says. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride.”

Even before the plight of tobacco farmers became common knowledge, Parrish and a group of tobacco farmers saw the handwriting on the wall about the slow, painful death of the U.S. tobacco program. They initiated and won a class-action lawsuit against the five major cigarette manufacturers. Some accused them of biting the hand that fed them. “We just thought they were taking too much from the table,” Parrish says. “It just looked like they were about to take the program for nothing. At first our push was to get the buyout before the manufacturers’ killed the program. It was evident that the program was destined to get to the point where it is today. The lawsuit called their (the manufacturers’) hand and brought attention to the problem. We drew a line in the sand and said we weren’t going any farther.”

Part of the money from the settlement has made it possible to travel back and forth to Washington, D.C., on a weekly basis.

Ironically, Parrish’s grassroots public education came from the largest U.S. cigarette manufacturer, through the Philip Morris Leadership Training Program, the lead defendant in the growers’ suit. He was a member of one of the first classes that received training in public speaking and lobbying.

“Keith has been in Washington a lot these days,” says Martha Parrish, sitting in their Harnett County home where tobacco used to be stored.

On a brief respite at mid-week in early July, Parrish is engaged in a conversation no more than 10 minutes when he takes a call. In the next 30 minutes, he’ll take two more calls, in addition to welcoming a neighbor to come in and visit. The calls these days are just as likely to come from U.S. congressmen or senators as they are from farmers seeking information about the tobacco buyout.

For the past year, Parrish and other grower representatives have been practicing grassroots politics, visiting Washington on an almost weekly basis for three days at a time to seek passage of a tobacco buyout.

It’s involved talking with politicians, as well as groups with a vested interest in seeing the tobacco buyout pass.

Along with health groups, burley and flue-cured producer representatives met to clear the air about the Food and Drug Administration issue in the tobacco buyout in late June. The message was a definite ‘we’ll support your bill, you support our bill.’ “It would have been very hard to move forward if you can see the blame laid at the feet of a certain group over a certain issue,” Parrish says. The House bill that passed earlier in the year didn’t have FDA regulation of cigarettes and tobacco products; the Senate bill included FDA regulation.

After years of false starts, the tobacco buyout gained momentum with its passage by the House earlier this year. Parrish believes the buyout gained further momentum when President George W. Bush, on a campaign stop, said he didn’t see a need for any change in the tobacco program. “I believe that helped move it,” Parrish says. “A lot of politicians were pumping the Kerry campaign to capitalize on the President’s remarks. The President’s comments helped bring out the issue.

“It’s pure politics in D.C. now,” Parrish said, a couple of weeks before the Senate passed a buyout bill. “I feel like it’s going to happen.”

Drawing on his training in the Philip Morris Leadership Program, as well as time spent as the CEO of the National Tobacco Growers and as a former president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, Parrish and others pounded the pavement and talked to anyone in Congress who would listen.

“The PM program trained us in specialized short courses, sent us to Brazil and gave us courses in public speaking,” Parrish says. “I went through their advanced program. The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina is where I got my start speaking up for tobacco.”

Every time he has visited with legislators, his message has been the same, consistent truth: Tobacco growers have lost more than 50 percent of their quota since 1997 and need help. Without that help, many could lose their farms and livelihood and an entire region of the country could be decimated. And time is running out.

“Don’t ever shoot the bull with those guys,” Parrish says, recounting the lessons he learned. “You tell them the truth. They like to be able to put a face with the truth, the same message presented the same way time and time again.” He still encourages tobacco growers to call and write their representatives and senators in Congress.

“I’m down to 40 acres,” Parrish says. “When people give away their bulk barns, you know there’s something wrong. If we experience a 30-percent cut, on top of what we’ve already lost, everybody knows it’s over.”

Over the years that he’s been fighting for a tobacco buyout, Parrish has heard a common theme: “Many farmers are holding out for the buyout, holding on for the buyout,” he says.

Some farmers got out last year; others, if a tobacco buyout becomes a reality, will take the money and retire; still others will use the money to expand production.

For Parrish, he’ll consider continuing tobacco production after looking at it. “All farmers will look at it in a business-like way.”

Independent by nature, Parrish has never signed a contract to produce tobacco for a cigarette company. Post-buyout he feels there will still be a place for the independent producer and the auction system. “Foreign buyers like auctions because they get to see the tobacco,” Parrish says. “The problem with no price support is, ‘where do we go?’ perhaps a new investment to make cigarettes,” Parrish says, referencing the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation’s decision to manufacturer cigarettes.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com