As droves of longtime growers leave the tobacco business, Coyner, 29, is trying to break in.
He raised a half-acre of the crop last year, producing 500 pounds of tobacco. He took it to an auction in Danville, Ky. and sold it all for $1.81 per pound.
“I was surprised, the market was holding itself up,” he said.
He plans to raise five and a half acres this year and predicts he’ll get at least 2,000 pounds of tobacco from it.
There were 544 tobacco farms in West Virginia in 2002, according to a 2004 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
The state Department of Agriculture doesn’t track the number of tobacco growers. But Roger Quarles, president of the Kentucky-based Burley Tobacco Growers Co-Operative Association, says there aren’t many left.
“If I said 20, I might be exaggerating,” he said. “It never was a huge thing, but it was something.”
Quarles said many tobacco farmers left the business after the federal government’s 2004 buyout of tobacco quotas.
For years, the federal government regulated tobacco growers by issuing allotments. Farmers were allowed to grow a certain acreage of tobacco on their lands, depending on the size of their fields.
Growers had to purchase allotments from other landowners if they wished to increase their production or lease land from other farmers.
The government eventually changed the system from an acreage-based allotment to a per-pound quota, where farmers were allowed to produce a specific amount of tobacco each year.
All that went away when Congress passed a $10.1 billion buyout for tobacco growers. The buyout gave farmers a dollar for every pound of tobacco in their quota, with the payments spread over a 10-year period.
Then in 2005, the government lifted all quota restrictions on tobacco growers. That drove tobacco prices down as supply overtook demand.
According to a North Carolina State University article from that year, tobacco prices fell from $1.85 to $2 per pound before the buyout to $1.30 to $1.50 in November 2005.
U.S. tobacco production has decreased dramatically since then.
In 2002, the U.S. produced 428,631 acres of tobacco, according to USDA data. In 2011, the most recent data available, farmers raised 336,050 acres of tobacco.
A new crop
Many farmers have left the tobacco industry for other crops. Ray Ferguson now grows asparagus on his Lincoln County farm.
His father-in-law, Joe Ware, started the farm about 40 years ago. When Ferguson married into the family 25 years ago, Ware was raising 10 acres of tobacco. By the time the farm stopped growing tobacco, it was down to five acres.
“Everything was different back then,” he said. “Back then, I could make $750, $1,000 on just half an acre if you had good tobacco.”
The family got out of the tobacco business a few years before the buyout. Ware Farms’ tobacco sold for $2.20 per pound that last year.
Ferguson now sells his asparagus for $2.75 per pound.
“It’s been good to me. It’s as good as tobacco ever was to me,” he said.
Ware Farms is now the state’s largest asparagus grower and produces 6,000 pounds of asparagus yearly.
Ferguson was inspired to grow the vegetable while preparing to grill steaks one day. He decided he wanted some asparagus to go with his meat, and went to pick some from a small patch in his wife’s grandfather’s garden.
To his dismay, someone had already picked the asparagus patch clean. Ferguson headed to the local grocery store to purchase a pound or two. He became even more dismayed.