MOULTRIE -- As the last day of the Colquitt County tobacco sale came to a close Thursday, Rep. Saxby Chambliss introduced tobacco buyout legislation that is gaining bipartisan support in the House.

"I'm introducing this buyout legislation at the request of tobacco quota owners and growers throughout Georgia," said Chambliss, a Moultrie native. "Flue-cured tobacco has been reduced by nearly 50 percent since 1998. Thus resulting in significantly reduced revenues for tobacco growers and local communities. Quota reductions, increased disease pressures, drought and other challenges facing tobacco quote growers and owners have added pressures to changing in the current quota system.

"This bill would provide folks with a buyout of tobacco quota. But it also makes sure we get it done right, by preserving tobacco farming and the entire industry for future generations," he said.

Chambliss calls his initiative the Rural Community Revitalization and Transition Act. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., will introduce a collateral bill in the Senate. A lame duck session may be necessary to hear the high number of bills before Congress, and Chambliss is optimistic that the proposal will move quickly, he said.

Chambliss said he wants the "right kind of buyout" -- good for producers, quota holders and the long term viability of the tobacco industry.

"I have never felt that the particular buyout bills that have been introduced before satisfied all those particular issues and needs," he said.

A recent buyout proposal was introduced by Sen. Max Cleland in June. Like Cleland's bill, the Chambliss version does not give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco. Other proposals in the House do.

"We have fought hard to keep FDA off the farm. The bills that have FDA regulation in there will put FDA behind the wheel of a tractor, and I don't think that's right," Chambliss said.

Both the Cleland and Chambliss versions provide for a buyout of quota holders at $8 per pound with $4 per pound for growers. Chambliss' bill provides an option for payment over five years or in one lump sum. Cleland's is only offered in a five-year payment structure.

Colquitt County tobacco farmer Charles Bell eagerly awaits a reasonable buyout -- and he emphasized reasonable. Bell does not agree with segments of Cleland's proposal, particularly where farmers who owned quotas in 1998 can get compensation when producers renting quota only qualify for compensation if they were actively farming in 2001.

"I think if they go back to 1998 for the quota holder, they ought to go back with the producer too," he said.

Another major local grower, Ralph Underwood, thinks that would mean more money in tobacco growers' pockets, since 1998 was the first year when severe cuts began in the amount of tobacco U.S. farmers could grow, but he understands the rationale in including active tobacco farmers. But really, he added, the majority of local growers now also grew tobacco in 1998.

Bell would also like to have the option of one-lump sum payment in the beginning. Underwood agreed.

"I know one or two individuals 70 years old and still growing tobacco, and I'm quite sure they would prefer to go ahead and get that money now," he said.

Cleland wants to fund the buyout through user fees, while Chambliss wants to use the current 15-cent excise tax.

The Rural Community Revitalization and Transition Act also provides that the buyout be taxed as capital gains and provides for a no-net-cost program after quota is eliminated. This program will provide tobacco growers with a program that will keep American tobacco competitive both domestically and internationally, Chambliss said.

The proposal provides for a direct payment similar to other commodities of 35 cents per pound to growers, provides for a counter cyclical payment established by criteria set forth in the legislation and provides opportunities for new producers who want to produce tobacco for the market, he said.

Underwood thinks that the whole tobacco community wants a buyout, but he,

like Colquitt County Agent Scott Brown, hates to see varying proposals on the legislative table.

"We've been in that situation several years ago and that does not bode well," Brown said.

What the buyout will do to the gold leaf tradition in the South is still a guess. Chambliss referred to a North Carolina survey which suggests anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of current producers will abandon tobacco farming after a buyout.

Bell, who farmed 90 acres this year, is reserving his thoughts about pulling out of tobacco farming altogether until he sees what the tobacco companies are willing to offer.

"They still want the tobacco, and they're going to have to have the tobacco. But we're not going to be able to produce it for what they could buy it for in foreign countries. That's what the majority of the folks are thinking. ... They're going to have to show me something up front before I produce anything for them," he said.

More than 90 percent of Colquitt County tobacco is contracted, Brown said. Chambliss said the buyouts should not affect contracting.

Underwood, hard hit by tomato spotted wilt and drought conditions, opted to contract all of his 54 acres of tobacco this year. He's willing to hang on if tobacco companies continue offering good prices.

Tobacco companies especially want tobacco grown in South Georgia and the Carolinas, he said, and have been courting farmers with exceptionally good contracting prices in the past couple of years.

"Last year, I felt they were just baiting us up, but then again, they came in good this year. It appears they are wanting our tobacco and have a need for tobacco, for farmers who can grow good quality tobacco. I feel if there is a buyout, it will automatically reduce what they pay for this tobacco to some degree. I don't think it's going to be detrimental because they need our tobacco," Underwood said.

Both farmers think many of their colleagues will get out of tobacco.

For Sept. 29

Vernita King

DOERUN -- Mrs. Vernita King, 57, of Doerun died Friday, Sept. 27, 2002, at Colquitt Regional Medical Center.

Arrangements will be announced by Luke Strong and Son Mortuary.

Wylene K. Owens

MOULTRIE -- Mrs. Wylene K. Owens of 812 Northside Drive, Moultrie, died Friday, Sept. 27, 2002, at her residence. Funeral arrangements will be announced by Strong Funeral Home.

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