COVER

KICKING A HABIT

ANNE STEACY June 22 1987
COVER

KICKING A HABIT

ANNE STEACY June 22 1987

THE GROWERS' DESPAIR

COVER

Albert Honkoop says that he has always taken great pride in looking out the kitchen window of his farmhouse in Alliston, P.E.I., and admiring the summer fields of tall, green, shining tobacco. He adds that it had always been his dream to have a farm for his children to inherit after he retired. But now, Honkoop says, his children must find other professions because the future of tobacco farming is too uncertain. Raised on a dairy farm in Holland, Honkoop, 45, arrived in Canada in 1960 and worked as a tooland-die maker at de Havilland Aircraft of Canada and on a tobacco farm in Waterford, Ont. Seven years later he bought a farm of his own with the money he had saved. But in 1984, after 17 good years— during which Honkoop increased the size of his farm to 175 acres from 100 acres—the decline in the tobacco industry caught up with him. Now he only operates 60 acres, and two of his eight drying kilns are unused. Said Honkoop, chairman of the P.E.I. Tobacco Marketing Board: “What we had planned for—and worked so hard for—is gone.” Doomed: Like Honkoop,

many Canadian tobacco farmers have been forced by a succession of cigarette-tax increases and a decline in the numbers of smokers to rethink their futures. Indeed, the number of growers in southern Ontario alone—the country’s largest tobacco-producing area—has dropped to less than 2,000 from more than 2,500 five years ago. And according to many farmers, a three-year $30-million federal-provincial program, designed to help them ease out of tobacco growing and into alternative crops, has done little to help because the markets for most other crops are already saturated. “I’m concerned about how they will survive,” said Honkoop. “The future of tobacco farmers looks doomed—but the alternatives aren’t rosy either.”

In the tobacco belt—a 150-squaremile area 20 km southeast of London, Ont.—the past two years have taken an especially heavy toll. For many people living around the towns of Delhi, Simcoe, Aylmer and Tillsonburg, tobacco farming is the only life that they have ever known. Few have completed high school, and while experienced in such areas as carpentry and welding, they face difficulties in starting a new career. Indeed, many growers who have

invested thousands of dollars in land and in producing their “quota”—the amount of tobacco the Tobacco Marketing Board entitles them to grow— simply have not been able to accept losing it to creditors. Townspeople are reluctant to discuss it, but when pressed they say that at least seven tobacco farmers have committed suicide since January. Simcoe farmer John Malo knew two of them, and he says that he understands the despair of many members of the tightly knit

community. Said Malo:

“You inherit a farm secondor third-generation, and someone comes and tells you ‘Tomorrow we’re taking your equipment, we’re taking your quota and you’re out.’ Where do you go?”

Empty: Malo, 60, has 1,140 acres and has been farming all his life, operating and expanding the farm that his father started in 1936. But surrounding his property are many empty fields, stark evidence that there are others who have not been as fortunate. Malo says that the cigarette taxes have hurt the tobacco farmers more than anything. Indeed, between Jan. 1, 1980, and April 15, 1987, federal taxes increased 179 per cent.

On top of that, there were provincial increases—Ontario’s taxes went up 200 per cent in that period. The federal government now gets 92 cents from its tax on a $3 package of 25 king-size cigarettes; the farmers get 6 */2 cents.

Last year Canadian tobacco growers failed in an attempt to convince the government that they needed a national board to represent their interests. One of their requests was for an extra 2V2 cents per pack of cigarettes—an increase, according to Malo, that would have significantly helped to stabilize the industry.

Pride: Another development that compounded growers’ difficulties was the manufacturers’ decision to reduce inventories and consolidate because of the decline in tobacco sales. According to Christopher Seymour of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council, cigarette sales in Canada peaked in 1982 at 68.1 billion. In 1986 only 55.4 billion were sold—the lowest since 1973.

As a result, this year there are only 110 million pounds of tobacco being grown—an amount that is projected to hold steady for the next three years and about half the peak 230 million pounds grown in 1980. But what has hurt the tobacco producers most, according to Malo, is the price they now get for their quota: four years ago one pound of quota sold for $2.60; now it sells for 65 cents. Said Malo: “There’s nobody who understands the farmers. The government has got money for stadiums but it hasn’t got money for agriculture.”

Still, evidence of the pride tobacco

farmers once took in their livelihood is plentiful. At the entrance to the town of Delhi, a tall sign with a large golden tobacco leaf proclaims “Heart of the tobacco country.” Down the main street, past the Ontario Tobacco Museum, is the Golden Leaf Restaurant and Tavern. The peewee hockey team bears the name “Tobacco Town,” and there are no antismoking bylaws anywhere in the area. Indeed, in Tillsonburg, 15 km west of Delhi, smoking is still allowed in the last five rows of the movie theatre. Even though growers have accepted that there is less demand for their product, few are willing to completely give up tobacco farming.

‘Hassle’: Ronald Kichler has been a farmer in Delhi for 18 years, on a farm that has been in his family for almost half a century. Kichler, 39, owns 120 acres, and he has decreased his tobacco acreage to 25 per cent from 38 per cent over the past 10 years. Like Honkoop, Kichler had always thought his children might take over his farm. But now he says that he is disenchanted with the way the tobacco growers are being treated. Said Kichler: “If the government wants to get rid of tobacco farmers, fine. It’s just too much of a hassle now.”

Other farmers say that the program to help growers take land out of tobacco production is inadequate. Under the To-

bacco Assistance Program, farmers must sell at least half of their quota on the open market and will in turn receive up to $65,000 from the TAP for the remainder. But, said Malo, “what’s $65,000? Two tractors. So you get out of tobacco farming, you get the $65,000, you can’t use your equipment. You put it on the market, and you don’t get anything for it because nobody’s buying it.” In addition, many farmers say that they are frustrated by claims that they could just as easily grow crops other than tobacco. Few crops are suited to tobacco soil, and the ones that are—such as peppers and rye—are expensive to grow and difficult to market. Said Malo: “The alternative crop the government is talking about is trees or something of that nature, but we’re assessed $900 an acre on taxes. You can’t make a profit on trees for at least 10 years. You can’t pay your taxes off that.”

Pessimistic: In better times a forced farm sale was a rare event. This spring there have been as many as two a week in the tobacco belt. In 1984 tobacco farms in Ontario were worth about $2,500 per acre. Now, according to real estate lawyer and tobacco grower Fred Homeniuk, it is difficult to find a market at $900 per acre. Homeniuk owns just over 100 acres in Waterford, on the eastern edge of the tobacco belt. His wife, Regina, bought their farm in 1974

for $200,000. Now the land is worth half -of that amount. And Homeniuk is pessi-£ mistic about the future. “We’re virtual-^ ly dead now,” he said. “Even those grow-& ers who are left will be gone when we hit | smoke-free Canada.”

Struggle: Still, many industry experts say that the worst is over. Said Donald Lindsay, treasurer of the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers Marketing Board: “The last five years really shook the industry out. We’ve gone through the revolutionary part of the changes now.” But for the growers themselves, the adjustment to a new way of life—with or without tobacco—is likely to be difficult. Once the most prosperous of all farmers, many tobacco producers are now facing the fact that the future will be a struggle—and that a family tradition will be hard to pass on. Declared Honkoop: “When I got into this business 20 years ago, tobacco farmers were well-respected community leaders. Now we are just depicted as villains.” It is uncertain whether economic stability will return to Canada’s tobacco country over the next few years. But clearly the pride that its farmers once took in the fruits of their labor can never be restored.

NORA UNDERWOOD in Delhi with LAURIE GILLIES in Toronto and BARBARA MacANDREW in Alliston

LAURIE GILLIES

BARBARA MacANDREW