Alternative crops to tobacco - Christopher McGuire, 10/19/00 6:40PM

I support the development of alternative crops to replace or supplement tobacco cultivation. Such crops could provide additional income for the small farmers and rural communities which are hurt by the decline in income from tobacco farming.

As specific examples, I point to pawpaws (Asimina triloba) and maypops (also called wild apricots, Passiflora incarnata) as potential new crops. Both are native to tobacco-growing regions and are well-adapted to the climates and soils of those areas. Both bear delicious fruits which have been gathered from the wild and eaten by local people for centuries. In the future, these fruits could be grown and processed by local businesses. It is important to note that the processing of alternative crops, and not just their production, could provide jobs and income for rural communities. Maypop juice, for example, could be locally processed into jellies, juice blends, wine, and dessert products. I personally am aware of residents today who are producing and marketing both of these crops on a small scale.

Pawpaws and maypops are only two examples out of the many potential alternative crops which could be grown as food, medicine, or raw material for manufacturing. I encourage others interested in the work of this commission and well-being of the tobacco region to suggest other potential crops. Some potential crops, like the pawpaws and maypops, are wild plants that are now rarely grown. Other potential crops may be already commercially important outside of the tobacco region.

The development of alternative crops is not a pipe-dream. The kiwifruit and the blueberry were both domesticated in the last hundred years but are now commercially important crops.

The commission should make specific recommendations for promoting the development of alternative crops. Possible measures include: increased public funding for alternative crop research, and grants or low-interest loans to alternative crop-based ventures. Steps should also be taken to ensure that the benefits of alternative crops go to locally-owned businesses and rural communities. I also encourage efforts to include local residents in the process of developing alternative crops. Many rural residents already harvest and utilize potential alternative crops from the wild or grow them on a small scale. The knowledge of these people should be utilized, and their efforts encouraged. Given the current human degradation of the environment, research on alternative crops (and all other agricultural research) should emphasize the need to conserve natural resources and biodiversity.

Christopher McGuire