From Tobacco to Local Food in Western North Carolina

The mid-1990s marked the beginning of a significant period of transition in agriculture in the Appalachian region of Western North Carolina. After more than 70 years as the dominant cash crop for farmers, production of burley tobacco was entering a period of sharp decline. Shifting societal attitudes toward tobacco and changes in federal policy to end a federal quota and price support program made tobacco unprofitable for the small mountain farms of the region.

Anticipating the economic, social, and cultural impacts the loss of tobacco could have on the region, a group of farmers, agricultural support professionals, and other community stakeholders came together in 1995 to explore community-based solutions to the challenges facing small farmers. Organizers hit upon the idea of “local food”and in 2000 launched a local food campaign to build a market alternative for farmers. Over the next decade and a half, campaign efforts focused on increasing the visibility of the region’s farms, connecting people to farms and food, and building consumer demand for locally grown farm products.

Using data from the USDA Census of Agriculture, this paper looks at changes that have occurred to food and farms in Western North Carolina in the aftermath of tobacco and in relation to the effort to build a more localized food and farming economy.