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For Today's Tobacco Farmers, It's Diversify or Die
| February 24, 2011 | 11:37 AM EST

Tobacco is not just a commodity. It is a culture, a way of life, and a multi-billion dollar business . And it is the most controversial crop on the planet.

There is so much discussion about the health hazards and the politics of cigarettes. They kill people, yet taxes on them sustain so many government services.

Each year, the taxes on cigarettes go up, and smoking rates go down.

But beyond those headlines, there's a farm story, a product grown on U.S. soil for centuries. How ingrained is tobacco in agrarian America? Don't forget, Native Americans used it as currency before Europeans even arrived. In many parts of the country, it is the most lucrative crop per acre. Even with huge increases in prices for wheat, corn and soybeans, which average about $300 per acre, nothing makes more money than $1,500-per-acre tobacco.

"We call it the 13-month crop," said Todd Clark, who has been a tobacco farmer since he was a teenager in the 1980s. They call it that because tobacco farmers start preparing for the next season's crop before the previous year's yield has been sold at auction.

Put simply, it's a long process — but a profitable one.

Clark came to tobacco late compared to Brian Furnish, whose family has raised tobacco in Kentucky for 200 years. For a century before that, the Furnish family grew it in Colonial Virginia.

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