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Replacing Tobacco: The Evolution of Agriculture in Durham County

Durham is unquestionably a tobacco town. Throughout the 20th century the city’s growth paralleled that of the tobacco industry. Its skyline is dominated by the smokestacks of cigarette factories; tobacco warehouses line the streets of downtown. Traditionally Durham’s largest employers were tobacco giants Bull Durham, American Tobacco Company, and Liggett & Myers; since these companies’ dissolutions, Duke University and Medical Center—founded by a tobacco magnate—have assumed the role of dominant employers. However, Durham’s dependence on tobacco turned out to be its greatest weakness.

The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 hit Durham hard. In 1999 the city’s last tobacco company, Liggett & Myers, fled for small-town Mebane, NC, effectively ending over one hundred years of cigarette production in Durham (Cohn 23). The loss of the city’s primary industry led not only to unemployment and numerous unoccupied buildings, but also caused upheaval in the agricultural sector. Tobacco was North Carolina’s number one cash crop for the state’s entire existence, but with the drop in demand in the late 1990s it was no longer profitable. Farms with enough available capital switched to other crops; those without failed and were bought up by those that did. Durham County’s agricultural landscape was entirely transformed. As cash crops such as tobacco and cotton were no longer as profitable, North Carolina farmers placed renewed emphasis on cattle ranching, poultry, grain, fruit, and vegetables, as well new areas such as animal aquaculture and greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production.

This paper explores the growth and demise of North Carolina’s tobacco industry, the response of Durham’s farmers, and further options for the future.

Read on here

See the presentation here.

Andrew Lynn

Works Cited:

Anderson, Jean Bradley. 1990. Durham County. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anonymous. 2010. “After Tobacco: Biotechnology in North Carolina.” The Economist. 23 Oct: 36.

Austin, W. David and David Altman. 2000. “Rural Economic Development vs. Tobacco Control? Tensions Underlying the Use of Tobacco Settlement Funds.” Journal of Public Health Policy 21(2): 129-156.

Cohn, Gerry. 2009. Durham County Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Plan. Durham County Government Soil and Water Conservation District. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010. <www.co.durham.nc.us/departments/swcd/documents/durhamfarmplanpublicdraft2.pdf>.

Dohlman, Erik, Linda Foreman, and Michelle Da Pra. 2009. “The Post-Buyout Experience: Peanut and Tobacco Sectors Adapt to Policy Reform.” USDA Economic Research Bulletin Number 60. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EIB60/EIB60.pdf>.

Gross, Cary P., Benny Soffer, Peter B. Bach, Rahul Rajkumar, Howard P. Forman. 2002. “State Expenditures for Tobacco-Control Programs and the Tobacco Settlement.” New England Journal of Medicine 347: 1080-1086.

Jones, Alison Snow, W. David Austin, Robert H. Beach, and David G. Altman. 2007. “Funding of North Carolina Tobacco Programs Through the Master Settlement Agreement.” American Journal of Public Health 97(1): 36-44.

Roberts, Michael. 2008. “Why Are Food Prices Going Up?” NC State Economist. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.ag-econ.ncsu.edu/virtual_library/economist/novdec08.pdf>.

United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2007 Census of Agriculture. Dec. 2009. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010.

United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. 1992 Census of Agriculture. Dec. 2009. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010.

United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. 1950 Census of Agriculture. Fairfax, VA: USDA 1952.

All statistics from 1950/1992/2007 Census of Agriculture unless otherwise noted.


  1. Good topic, and done on something Durham has always been known for so very appropriate for these presentations.

    First, I would suggest maybe using a different font color in your presentations. I like the tobacco plants in the background, but it is a little difficult to make out the words and could deter away from an otherwise great presentation.

    The history part is really interesting. I never knew all these facts about the cigarrette lawsuits and how directly they relate to North Carolina and in particular Durham.

    The tables have great data. Just make sure to explain them well so everyone can fully understand how well they illustrate the transition undergone in Durham over the last 60 years.

    Great use of data on the decline in tobacco production. Also, good use of talking about what farmers are instead focusing their production on. Perhaps try to talk about how the transition undergoing old tobacco manufacturing plants into Brightleaf/West Village or American Tobacco Campus.

    Overall looks good and I look forward to seeing your presentation on Wednesday.

  2. Aesthetically, the background makes the font difficult to read. I’d change one or the other. Regarding content, I thought it the presentation was quite interesting. Considering the decline of the tobacco industry in the USA happened mostly before we were born, I doubt that many students know much about it. I’d be interested to know more about the future of the land around Durham. Will agriculture continue to grow, or will it tail off as farming becomes a less and less desirable industry for young people? Also, I agree with Daniel in that it might be worthwhile to discuss (at least quickly) the other effects of the tobacco industry on Durham.

  3. Is biotechnology really a reliable future industry for Durham? There are a lot of companies trying to push biofuels to a wider audience but I don’t think we’ve seen much here in the US. What does Durham have that will make it successful(other than RTP, of course)?

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