Anyone who’s been hooked on tobacco has had a hard time breaking free. Not least the farmers who grow it and the many government departments that encouraged them.
Failure to deal with going off smoking agriculturally is creating a crisis in southwestern Ontario, where tobacco seemed the perfect crop for small farms on sandy soil. It also lets us take a crack at learning how to wean ourselves gracefully off other harmful industrial addictions.
Farmers are rallying in Tillsonburg and Delhi to demand that governments cough up $1 billion to buy them out of an industry that has shrunk by two-thirds and faces massive competition from imports.
Choosing the lead-up to Non-Smoking Week for a campaign supporting tobacco farmers is incredibly bad timing. Still, they have a strong claim that may well inspire approaches that bring a speedy, just and healing end to a legion of other nasty industries.
After all, these farmers facing ruin are no different from people in a wide range of companies that hindsight may soon judge unsustainable and unsupportable.
The short list could include workers and communities in nuclear, coal and tar sands industries, as well as farmers who produce corn ethanol, french fries, potato chips, sugar beets and other junk food.
If we don’t get good at managing exit strategies early and fast, prepare to get good at protracted campaigns that pit people worried about losing their livelihood against people concerned with the environment and health.
For those who want to use government resources to move on, and leave vengeance in the trustworthy hands of conscience and the Lord, helping farmers quit smoking is an opportunity to get proactive policy right.
In the late 1980s, I worked with the late Tony Mazzocchi, an American leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. He was a radical environmentalist leading a militant union of workers in some of the worst anti-ecological industries around.
Mazzocchi’s hope was that his members could support plant closures if they got thrown an economic lifeline, like free university or apprenticeship education, so they could have something like a fresh start. He was always able to show that the most economical approach was to save public money by shutting down a harmful industry quickly and painlessly.
Mazzocchi's approach can’t be applied directly to Ontario tobacco. First, most farmers are closer to retirement than to starting a new career. Second, their land is still a valuable asset that can be put to good use, not just closed down like a coal plant.
But Mazzocchi got the no-fault piece of the puzzle. Smokers who need the predictable heart, lung and cancer treatments use the same medicare card as anyone else.
We don’t deny restorative payments to car accident victims who put the brakes on too late. Closure policy for industries should be the same.
That claim is especially strong because of government complicity in tobacco long after basic info on smoking and health was available. Ag ministries rarely consider health their mandate, so a crop that made good money for small farms on sandy soil was a no-brainer.
The Ontario government set up a marketing quota scheme in 1958. It invited tobacco reps along on tours to drum up export opportunities. The feds made it easy to bring in migrant workers. Provincial and federal governments provided research support for the industry as well.
There are lots of nicotine stains on government hands. Government policy failures include recent attempts to get farmers off tobacco. Ontario promoted crackpot schemes in niche markets where farmers who’d never operated in retail before faced off against giant multinationals.
Ginseng farmers hang on, but most schemes are in the Museum of Stupid Ideas: garlic and onions crushed by Chinese imports, peanuts flattened by U.S. imports and hemp never provided with any marketing support. “What, me market?” seems to be the ag department motto. Nor was there ever an industrial strategy for hemp involving pulp and paper or fashion textiles.
As a result of these fiascos, it’s understandable that farmers have little confidence in alternative crops.
Nor will government crime fighters win awards for controlling contraband sales of cigarettes, almost all made from imported tobacco and targeting young and low-income smokers. In lieu of a subsidy, perhaps tobacco farmers can be paid to teach police advanced crime detection techniques, such as reading highway signs advertising discounted smokes.
Bryan Gilvesy, a former tobacco farmer who specializes in ecological forestry and ranching near Delhi, says farmers shouldn’t be the only ones left suffering.
“The tobacco companies still make money selling cigarettes, the crooks still make money selling contraband, the government still makes money on taxes from legal sales,” says Gilvesy. “It’s just the farmers who’ve been left to twist in the wind.”
There is no big solution, just hundreds of small ones, he says. Government can purchase PV solar electri-city produced on the highly sun-exposed farms of the area, support tree farming to store carbon and provide local sawmills with selectively cut lumber.
It can protect farmers who produce for local markets from exports that are illegally “dumped,” commonly bearing pesticide levels not tolerated in Ontario.
“This thing has to be put to bed,” Gilvesy says.