Thursday, August 26, 2004

A Fest for Tobacco?

You bet, and Ripley's getting a tad defensive; Tiny Ohio River village says 'Thank you' for smoking

By Matt Leingang
Enquirer staff writer

RIPLEY - Tobacco strikes an emotional chord with Bill Fauth, 59, a tobacco farmer in Ripley, a tiny Ohio River village practically built on the crop.

"Tobacco paid for a lot of mortgages and put a lot of kids through college. It's been vital to our economy and our history," says Fauth, leaning out the window of a tobacco barn. Some of this year's crop already has been harvested.

An acre of tobacco requires 900 man hours from seedling to market. James Napier from Mt. Orab, Ohio finds plenty of work these days as he works with a crew making rounds of farms where they cut, stake and hang tobacco.
(Enquirer photo/MICHAEL E. KEATING)
Yet as Fauth anticipates the start today of the 23rd annual Ohio Tobacco Festival, there are questions about how much longer Ripley will hang on to that heritage.

Ripley - a village of 1,700 people about 50 miles east of Cincinnati on U.S. 52 - is in Brown County, which produces the most tobacco in Ohio.

But these are not easy times. Government quotas are sharply reducing the amount of tobacco that farmers can grow, and the use of tobacco has never been more socially unacceptable - anti-smoking ads are everywhere and cities nationwide, including Cincinnati, are debating smoking bans in bars and restaurants.

Toledo and Lexington, Ky., already have such bans. Columbus City Council approved a ban this summer, but opponents successfully petitioned to have the issue placed on the November ballot.

Some folks around Ripley are growing weary of the festival to celebrate tobacco, even if the stated intent is not to promote cigarettes but to honor the village's heritage. If that's the case, they say, Ripley's other civic legacy as a major stop on the Underground Railroad is more worthy.

"I've spoken out from time to time," says Dr. Todd Williams, 38, president of Brown County's Board of Health.

Williams grew up on a tobacco farm in nearby Georgetown.

"The festival is great fun. It raises a lot of money for community groups. But, personally, I'd rather see the town come together for a different cause."

Good clean fun

The four-day festival features everything from a tobacco-cutting contest to carnival rides for kids. Daily raffles help support schools, scholarship funds, the fire department and the local tobacco museum.

The event is spread out over two giant tobacco warehouses on Second Street and spills into the village square. Between 45,000 and 75,000 people are expected.

There's even a tobacco queen - a teen-age girl who wears the crown for a year and whose duties are to represent the industry at other Ohio festivals. Contestants must come from families with ties to tobacco farming, which in this village means just about everybody.

The festival traces its roots to 1982, when tobacco companies held a dinner party to honor Ripley's tobacco farmers. The next year, the village started its own festival.

Big Tobacco - RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson - continued to sponsor the event, but its involvement ended with the 1998 national tobacco settlement, when tobacco companies agreed to limit their advertising and help 46 states recoup health-care costs associated with tobacco use.

Festival organizers, though, keep banners from those tobacco companies hanging in the warehouses.

Ohio's portion of the tobacco settlement was $10.1 billion, promised over 26 years. Some of the early money went to programs to help farmers grow alternatives to tobacco.

Farmers must diversify to survive, experts say.

Brown County's quota for 1997 was 7.7 million pounds. By 2000, it fell to 2.8 million, about where it remains today.

End of an era

"I tell people to look at it this way. How would your life be affected if half of your income were lost? What if your job went from 40 hours a week to 20 hours?" says David Dugan, a Brown County agricultural agent with Ohio State University. "Sure, you might find something else to do, but would it be enough to replace your income? Probably not."

Tim and Betty Jo Ratliff are tobacco growers looking to dreduce their reliance on the crop. Ten years ago, tobacco accounted for 75 percent of their 103-acre farm 25 miles north of Ripley. Today, it is no more than 25 percent.

Last year, the Ratliffs took advantage of a $4,200 grant from the tobacco settlement and installed a pond to raise shrimp. The venture has been so successful they put in a second pond on their own.

"We hope to keep this going," says Betty Jo, who has four children. Two are still in school.

The future of tobacco here is hard to predict.

The average age of today's tobacco farmer is 60, Dugan says. As they approach retirement, many support the proposed taxpayer buyout of tobacco farmers that is being debated in Congress.

Younger tobacco growers are looking to hang on for whatever limited market exists in the future, Dugan said.

The annual festival is hanging on, too, despite a lack of involvement from younger generations.

"Everyone has demands on their time. I understand that," says 39-year-old Greg Applegate, president of the festival committee. "So we're constantly recruiting people to help plan this event every year."

Fauth wants the celebration to keep going, regardless of whether the theme shifts away from tobacco.

"It's sad, really," says Judith Gray, 64, a lifelong resident of Ripley and a former smoker. "I'm against smoking, but the farmers here should be proud of their heritage and I hope the festival continues. It's the biggest event of the year around here."

If you go

What: 23rd annual Ohio Tobacco Festival.

When: Today through Sunday. 5-8 p.m. today; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, followed by Poor Man's Regatta on the river at 2 a.m.; 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Ripley, Ohio. From Cincinnati, take U.S. 52 east.

Events: Three big parades, antique car show, flea market, indoor craft show and commercial exhibits, more than 40 food booths. Don't miss the queen pageant, tobacco-cutting contest, tobacco-spitting contest, talent show, arm-wrestling competition, cornhole tournament, cheerleading competition and Sunday prayer breakfast.

Cost: Free.

Information: 937-392-4365.

Top 5 tobacco-growing counties in Ohio

County 2003 harvested acres 2003 production
Brown 1,870 3.2 million pounds
Adams 1,440 2.4 million pounds
Gallia 650 994,300 pounds
Clermont 430 724,400 pounds
Highland 365 569,300 pounds
Source: Ohio Department of Agriculture



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