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