By John Clement
January 20, 2012
I grew up on a tobacco farm. My brother grew tobacco, as did my father and grandfather. I have spent literally months of my life replanting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting and moving flue-cured leaf. Accordingly, I have viewed the rise and fall of the Ontario tobacco industry with keen interest and have tried to glean lessons from it that can be used when studying other agricultural commodities.
Tobacco was a huge contributor to the economies of whole counties in southwestern Ontario. Land that was deemed of limited productive value after the Second World War was quickly transformed into cash-producing farmsteads that delivered lots of income, lots of tax money and lots of employment. Tobacco was a success story for several decades.
But it didn’t take long for tobacco’s demise to begin. Several health organizations started ringing alarm bells about the health implications of smoking. Regulations and increasing taxes at both the federal and provincial level put increasing pressure on the industry, with decreasing purchases of Ontario leaf from tobacco companies combining to create an exodus out of tobacco farming.
Nothing symbolizes the change in tobacco’s fortunes more than recent reports that the Ontario government has overcome a legal roadblock in launching a $50-billion lawsuit against 14 tobacco companies to recover past and ongoing health care costs due to tobacco-related illnesses. The government maintains that smoking is the number one cause of premature death and illness in Ontario and costs the health care system $1.6 billion annually.
The lessons of tobacco are lessons in transition. Some farmers simply cashed in early, selling their farms and getting out while the getting was good. Others waited and transitioned into cash crops or higher-value crops like ginseng. Still others found a variety of ways to leverage their agricultural problems into opportunities.
The silver lining in this story for former tobacco-producing communities is that innovation and entrepreneurship have followed in the wake in tobacco’s demise and some farmers are leading the way with new agricultural ventures. To learn more about the changes taking place, log on to www.farmcentre.com and check out the organization’s December 2011 newsletter on success stories from Norfolk County. It’s a good read and shows that innovation is a key success factor in any form of agricultural transition.
John Clement is the General Manager for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKNX Wingham, and UCB Canada radio stations in Chatham, Belleville, Bancroft, Brockville and Kingston and in Brantford and Woodstock. It is also found on the CFFO website: www.christianfarmers.org. CFFO is supported by 4,200 family farmers across Ontario.