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FLORIDA TOBACCO FARMS // A HAZY FUTURE

Kevin Dasher came home from grade school one afternoon with a question.

Daddy, do you deal drugs?

Kenneth Dasher, a farmer, demanded to know what his freckle-faced preteen was talking about. The boy said a coach had spoken to his health class that day.

"He told us all farmers who grow tobacco are drug pushers," Kevin said. "It made me feel kind of bad."

It made his father furious.

"I couldn't believe they were telling him this at school," the farmer says. "Kevin didn't understand. He's a kid. He equaled it to peddling cocaine."

Most people think it is all grown in places like North Carolina and Virginia, but the production of tobacco runs as deep on the farms of North Florida as the rich, wet soil. Dasher prizes an old black-and-white photo of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather _ smiling proudly and seated together on a load of their finest golden leaves.

It's a tradition, the farmers say, that is under attack. Already, they faced cheaper competition from other countries, a short cropping season and Florida's unpredictable weather.

Now come new threats. Gov. Lawton Chiles is leading the state's charge against cigarette makers. A jury awarded a former smoker cash for his illnesses in a landmark verdict in Jacksonville last week. There's a growing mood around the country, the farmers say, that brands everyone connected to tobacco as immoral.

"I wish they would just leave us alone," Kenneth Dasher says. "I'm out here working an honest _ a legal _ living. I pay taxes, but then I'm told I'm bad."

Dasher does not smoke. No one in his house does. He says he would be "less than smart" to claim smoking tobacco is healthy. "That's bullcrap."

Growing tobacco, however, makes money.

"Is it immoral for a banker to loan money to someone who is going to build a bar? What about a mother and father who let their son go to a movie, when movies are supposed to promote violence?" Dasher asks. "Why are tobacco people always asked the moral question?"

Dasher is unsure for now whether 12-year-old Kevin will carry on the family farm.

"Who knows?" he says. "You kind of want your kids to be like you. The only reason I wouldn't want him to do it is all the uncertainty."

Uncertainty has sent the elder Dasher back to school. At 41, the farmer commutes to Gainesville to take classes at the University of Florida.

Next year, he expects to be the first in his family to get a bachelor's degree. His will be in forestry.

"This is in case Mr. Chiles has his way," Dasher says. "It's like an insurance policy."

Controlled chaos

Raindrops begin pounding the dirt as Dasher drives up on a farm machine. His shirt is soaked. Wide yellow leaves slip into the blades of the stripper machine, ride up its conveyor belt, and flip into the trailer that follows it.

Another row of tobacco is ready to go to the barn.

"I want empty trailers! I want empty trailers!" Dasher calls over the roar of the stripper engine.

Kevin hooks the trailer loaded with leaves to a pickup truck. His daughter, 14-year-old Kelli, drives it across rutted dirt roads to the barn, where the leaves will be cured with hot air.

Dasher, meanwhile, is hurriedly hooking an empty trailer to the stripper. He's off to the next row.

This is rush season. The Dashers' 50 acres of tobacco _ some 130,000 pounds _ is ready to be harvested. If the tobacco isn't brought out of the fields fast, it can go bad. If you crop it while it's wet, though, the leaves don't cook well.

The rain keeps falling, but Dasher decides to press on this afternoon. The operation has been halted too much this season by rain. The edges of some of his yellow leaves are turning brown.

"I'm in a bad spot," Dasher says. "Every day I'm losing pounds out there. I have to get it in."

Row after row, tobacco is never the same. If it wasn't rain, it would be blue mold or barn rot or hornworms. One of these plump green worms, they say, can devour a tobacco leaf faster than you can pick it.

"This eight or nine weeks in the summer is what I call controlled chaos," Dasher says. "It's a game. Everything is a game. I've always liked that."

A tobacco leaf license plate decorates the front of Dasher's blue pickup. Outside Suwannee County, he says, the plate usually draws a confused reaction: "You're from Florida. What's that? An oak leaf?"

Actually, these counties in Florida, along Georgia's border, have long been tobacco country.

When Dasher started helping his dad grow tobacco at age 7, more than 100 Suwannee County farmers grew a few acres of the crop. Those were the days when you pulled the leaves off by hand and piled them under your arm. Today, about 50 farmers grow larger acreages of the crop in Suwannee, the state's biggest tobacco county.

This year, state agriculture officials say, Florida's tobacco production is expected to hit 18.1-million pounds _ more than $31-million worth. A small percentage of the country's 1.6-billion pounds, that still makes Florida the 10th largest tobacco producer of about 25 states where tobacco is grown.

Tobacco's critics have not hurt Dasher's sales yet. Overseas demand for American tobacco continues to grow. If the industry takes many more blows though, trouble could eventually filter back to him.

Tobacco will make up about 60 percent of the Dasher family income this year. He grows other crops _ soybeans, corn, grass seed _ on the 385-acre farm, but none bring the returns that tobacco does.

That's partly because the government closely controls the crop and its minimum price. The federal tobacco program sets how much a farmer can grow and ensures that he will be able to sell it.

But that, too, has stirred criticism from people who say the government should not help stabilize sale of a product that its own scientists estimate to cause more than 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Change of heart

Lawton Chiles spent a day hunting doves on Dwight Stansel's farm, Stansel says. A local legislator had brought the governor to the farm, and they all shared a catfish supper that night four years ago.

"That sonovab__," Stansel says now. "He was a good shot. He seemed just like one of the old boys."

"Then the next year, it turns out he's trying to hurt me, and he's trying to hurt my friends. Tobacco and poultry have put more children in warm beds than any other thing in Suwannee County. I made it clear that the governor wasn't welcome back."

Chiles has led the state's lawsuit against cigarette makers for the costs of treating sick smokers. Ten states have sued manufacturers _ and a dozen more are preparing to sue _ to recover Medicaid expenditures related to smoking.

What infuriates Stansel is politicians who trash his industry, but accept the millions in tax revenues tobacco creates. "They're not gonna kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he says. "It is paying more than its share of taxes already."

Today, Stansel depends more on his tree nursery for profits than on his 22 acres of tobacco. Like many farmers around here, he finds safety in diversity.

There's a sign posted in his nursery office: "Smoking is permitted in this building." He ordered it from his office supply company. The company had to place a special order.

Stansel says he already has done his lifetime share to keep the tobacco industry going. He smoked three packs a day for 25 years. Raleighs, Marlboros, Marlboro Lights. Whatever.

"I loved to smoke. It was a good habit. It gives you a world of pleasure."

Then one day in 1992, he quit. "I threw my pack of cigarettes in my tool box and I ain't ever smoked another," Stansel says. "As far as quitting, it's not easy. But by far, it's not the hardest thing I've ever done."

The only real habit he had to break, he says, was reaching one hand into his front shirt pocket.

He scoffs at people who blame someone else _ the cigarette makers or the advertisers or the growers _ for their smoking.

And if Stansel contracts lung cancer someday?

"Ain't got a damn soul to blame but me."

Profitable crop

The floor of the Big Independent warehouse in Live Oak is covered with 200-pound piles of flue-cured tobacco leaves on burlap sheets.

Farmers stand near their piles, watching men in white shirts _ USDA graders _ study the color and texture of the leaves. Girls in cut-off shorts stand ready with stacks of cigarette-maker labels. Across the room, a cry goes up.

Six cigarette company buyers, all in khaki slacks, speed-walk down a row of the tobacco piles. At a pile, they raise fingers to signal offers. Zipping along with them, auctioneer Jimmy Parker sings out: "Two-two-two-two TayLORRRRRR!"

That pile is sold. Mr. Taylor owns it. It cost $1.72 a pound. No one even stops walking. In minutes, a whole row is auctioned off, ready to be hauled away to become cigarettes.

The line dance moves to the next row. "Three-three-three . . ."

For tobacco that meets inspection grading standards, farmers always get at least the minimum price set by the federal tobacco program. This day, auction prices range from around $1.60 a pound to more than $1.87.

Price also depends on cigarette makers' immediate needs, and the leaves' quality and type. Leaves from the bottom of the plants are used as filler in cigarettes and draw less money than the aromatic, nicotine-filled leaves from the plants' tops.

At today's auction, people are talking with disgust about what happened in Jacksonville a week ago. A man who developed lung cancer after smoking Lucky Strikes for 44 years was awarded $750,000, the largest judgment against a tobacco company. The jury _ the first to have access to internal corporate documents of a cigarette maker _ decided that cigarettes were a defective product and that their makers were negligent for not warning people of their danger.

"I was surprised," says warehouse owner Cecil Moore, "really shocked."

Though the verdict sent tobacco companies on a wild ride in the stock market, Moore has seen no effect at this level. "The companies aren't even concerned about it," he insists.

Her elbows resting on her knees, Alma Bracewell sits on a pile of tobacco, waiting. All the stacks around her came from her farm. She is one of the only women farmers selling at this auction.

Her grandparents were among the first tobacco farmers in Florida. When her 55-year-old farmer husband had his second heart attack a year ago, her responsibilities increased on their 80 acres of tobacco.

Though her hands are swollen with arthritis, Bracewell plows, sprays, fertilizes. So far this season, the Bracewells have flue-cured 117 barns-worth.

"People need to realize, it's not that we promote smoking," she says. "Tobacco is the only thing a farmer can make a profit from."

Her husband, Harold, smokes. Even after the heart trouble.

Alma Bracewell, a non-smoker, doesn't know whether it will kill him. His family history and stress from work may be bigger factors, she says. What's more, she knows plenty of people who smoked or chewed or dipped for years, and lived into their 90s.

"He don't want to stop," she says. "He says he enjoys smoking."

"I would want him to stop. I want him to stay with me. I would like for him to grow to a ripe old age."

Family support

Everyone rises early on the Dasher farm this morning. The children are expected to pitch in without complaint. They work alongside their mother Garnet, neighbors and Mexican migrant workers. Kevin, a miniature replica of his father in jeans and a cap, already drives a tractor.

Tobacco is their time off from school. They will receive $750 for their work. They can spend it as they please, but they must buy their own school clothes. Kenneth Dasher is checking the temperatures on each of his 13 tobacco barns. His last check was after midnight. He opens a door and a sweet, strong smell wafts out of the leaves.

"Tobacco smells good at two times," he says. "Right now. And when it's ink on the check."

Inside the Dasher house, there's a photo of an uncle. He died of lung cancer. He was 53.

"That gets you to thinking," Garnet Dasher says. "Well, are we doing something wrong? But, I go back to it being a person's choice."

Gov. Chiles, Kenneth Dasher complains, is the "great crusader" for people who don't accept responsibility for themselves.

"What I know is I'm taking care of me and my family," he says.

The ridges in Dasher's palms are stained black, from tobacco. "Farmers are not what you imagine in your big old cotton plantations, where everybody's sitting back, smoking cigars and drinking lemonade."

As he heads back to the field, a line of dark clouds is growing along the horizon. He climbs onto the stripper machine to start cutting down the next row of plants.

If the Dashers manage to finish cooking all their tobacco by the end of this week _ as they hope to _ they will have one weekend free before school starts again.

"There," he says, "is our summer."

Florida's tobacco road

Last year, Florida grew about 17.7-million pounds of tabacco. Nationwide, farmers grew 1.2-billion pounds last year. This map shows the 13 main tobacco-producing Florida counties, and how many pounds they grew last year:

1. Suwannee: 4,576,000

2. Hamilton: 2,660,000

3. Alachua: 2,135,000

4. Columbia: 2,021,000

5. Madison: 1,907,000

6. Lafayette: 1,602,000

7. Union: 520,000

8. Gilchrist: 372,000

9. Jefferson: 344,000

10. Baker: 287,000

11. Bradford: 252,000

12. Taylor: 223,000

13. Gadsden: 210,000

Source: Florida Agricultural Statistics Service.

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