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Virginia tobacco farmers turn to Christmas trees

By Matthew A. Ward

PORTSMOUTH, Va (Reuters) - Christmas is indeed a jolly time of year for some former Virginia tobacco farmers who have switched to a more health-friendly crop.

On a 25-acre Christmas tree farm at Mouth of Wilson, in remote Appalachian Virginia, Ron Cooper has a spring in his step as he awaits the arrival of his seasonal workers.

It's just after 8 a.m. on a weekday, and the crew will go to work planting Fraser Fir seedlings, which Cooper says are by far the most popular Christmas tree.

The 60-year-old is going out on a limb planting this time of year, having never done so before. He hopes the seedlings, while withstanding the cold, will not dry up and die as he says often happens to crops sown in the summer.

Cooper grew tobacco on "anywhere from five to six acres" for about 15 years, last growing it in the early 90s, before deciding he would be better off concentrating on the Christmas tree business.

The tobacco growing habit skipped a generation because his grandparents grew the crop but not his parents.

"We didn't have enough property other than to keep two or three milking cows and two hogs to kill every year, and some chickens," Cooper said of his upbringing.

He said he had "lived from payday to payday" working in a factory before going into tobacco, and while growing tobacco he also had to cut and sell firewood and freelance with his tractor.

"Anything for a buck," Cooper said. "You had to be a jack of all trades to get by."

Tobacco has been grown in Virginia since 1612, when Englishman John Rolfe discovered how well the plant was suited to the then colony and how profitably it sold back in the mother country.

Before deregulation in 2004, the federal government had provided tobacco quotas and price supports since the 1930s, making tobacco Virginia's number one crop.

But then came a buyout, included in a corporate tax legislation bill signed into law in the fall of 2004, that included $9.6 billion in compensation for growers to make up for the quotas and subsidies lost through deregulation, according to North Carolina State University.

Flue-cured tobacco acreage plummeted from 30,000 acres in 2004 to 17,050 in 2005 as some quota owners used the compensation to find other ways to farm their land, a Virginia Tech research paper found.

Data on how many Virginia tobacco farmers went into Christmas trees -- as Cooper already had initially in 1979 -- is unavailable, but "only a handful" were growing them in Virginia in the 1980s, according to retired Virginia Department of Agriculture extension officer Charlie Conner.

Fast forward to 2007, and the agriculture census of that year, which will be updated in 2012, reported 481 Christmas tree farms in Virginia covering 9,414 acres, and 313,710 trees cut.

This season is "slightly on the upswing" from 2010, Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association President Virginia Carroll said. "We are (still) impacted of course by the economy, but it looks like we're doing all right," she added.

Conjuring a quintessential North American Christmas scene of moms, dads and children inspecting rows of trees before having one fastened with twine onto the car roof, Cooper said he used to sell his own trees direct from lots around Virginia Beach.

Now he runs a choose-and-cut operation and wholesales, growing close to 4,000 trees on 10 to 12 acres. Cooper said a Christmas tree costs approximately $9 to grow and returns $21 for a six-footer, taking seven or eight years to produce.

"You've got to plant every year, or at some point you'll miss a payday," he said.

Cooper said he'll keep doing what he does while he still can. One aspect of Christmas tree farming he particularly enjoys is the company of his seasonal workers, mostly Mexicans legally in the United States under work permits.

"The guys that help me have steady jobs and I can only get them on their days off," he said. "To me they're just the finest people in the world to be around; I'd sooner spend time with the guys that work for me than anybody around."

Cooper said his 63-year-old wife, Donna, works in a factory but takes a week off around Thanksgiving, when trees are loaded and sent to market, to help on the farm.

They are finding the financial rewards better from Christmas trees than they had from tobacco, whose 2011 flue-cured acreage in Virginia is -- incidentally -- set to increase from 17,500 acres in 2010 to 18,500 acres.

But Cooper maintains that tobacco played an important role in helping families survive.

"As far as I'm concerned, tobacco was a non-healthy crop … but if it hadn't of been for tobacco, lots of people would have struggled even more than they did here in the mountains," Cooper said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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