The Tobacco Bill went up in smoke in June, and as I write there’s no telling whether it will resolidify, like Aladdin’s genie, if Congress rubs the lamp. But before we consign the fight to the ancient history file, it’s worth noting a few details.

With the McCain bill died an attempt to kill the tobacco price-support program that has been so important to farmers in states like Kentucky and North Carolina. It was no surprise that the internationally-minded Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana had sponsored language that would have phased out the price-support program in three years, with a buyout. Mr. Lugar hates cigarettes, hates any kind of farm price-support program, and believes that we should give away our tax money only to people who really need it (i.e., the Pakistanis).

It was astonishing, however, that at the 11th hour Lugar was joined as co-sponsor by his fellow Republican, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell abandoned his previous support for fellow Kentuckian Wendell Ford’s LEAF Act, which would have kept the program but offered a 10-year buyout to those farmers wanting it. At a vital point in the debate, McConnell split the Kentucky delegation on this issue for the first time in memory. (Ford learned of McConnell’s change of heart only at a joint Lugar/McConnell press conference.)

The tobacco program should be palatable for everyone but the most entrenched big-business apologists or libertarians. In its 68 years, it has used very little federal money—all except some administrative costs are paid for by growers. In Kentucky especially, it benefits mostly small family farmers, bringing them an average of $6,000 in income a year. That may not sound like much, but any rural banker will tell you it’s vital money to Kentucky’s small towns.

The program regulates how much a farmer can grow, but in return offers a guaranteed market and sets a minimum price per pound—averaging $1.65 to $1.75 last year. This price has remained fairly low for many years, but it’s considerably higher than the world market price, given the pennies farmers earn in competing tobacco countries like Brazil.

The price is also high enough to make tobacco the most profitable crop per acre in this state. It has been vital to Kentucky farmers. Without it, or without a reasonable time of transition to find alternate crops, Kentucky will lose its family farms and small towns at an even faster rate than is happening already.

Thanks to the efforts of the Lexingtonbased Burley Co-op (the state growers association), tobacco farmers have lined up support from unlikely allies. The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, even tobacco abolitionist C. Everett Koop are on record as supporting the program. They understand that killing price supports will not stop the production of one cigarette, or keep one smoker from lighting up. It will just give the tobacco companies a windfall in the millions (given cheaper tobacco prices), and put an unguessable number of farmers out of business.

Proven wrong—at least temporarily—by June’s vote, McConnell has spent part of his summer living down his prediction that the program was dead. Never lacking in energy, he has not moderated his rhetoric. He held several meetings with tobacco growers around the state in midsummer, emphasizing the fact that while he supported Lugar’s act, he voted against the McCain bill.

But certain breaches aren’t healing. Called on the carpet (courteously, I was told) at his Shelbyville meeting by John Berry, Jr., who was for a long time president of the Burley Co-op, McConnell lost his temper and threatened to have the Co-op investigated. Perhaps that threat will go up in smoke, too. But farmers ought to know it bodes ill for them that McConnell has no wish to mend fences with Kentucky’s growers association.

What McConnell is banking on—besides short memories, since he is not up for re-election till 2002—is farmers’ fatigue. With tobacco under assault for the past several years, with costs rising and labor harder and harder to find, with enough questions about the tobacco program to enable even a Kentucky senator to support killing it, farmers are longing for resolution even more than fairness. One neighbor of mine divides his profits in return for borrowing equipment, rather than buy his own, because he doesn’t know if the program will continue. That is probably typical. Plenty of others are at stages of their lives where a buyout (eight dollars a pound in both Ford’s and Lugar’s plans) would be welcome. Better to be bought out than to bottom out.

The problem is, what happens afterward? Older farmers can retire, but younger farmers, even if they use the buyout to pay off the farm mortgage, still have to find another cash crop. And there’s the next generation to think of Brothers Wendell and John Berry, Jr., had reason to argue in a May 31 Louisville Courier-Journal piece that without a good alternative crop, a buyout only means we are paying farmers to stop farming.

If you think all the average American needs to be happy is a service economy job, maybe that doesn’t sound too bad. But for those of us living in the countryside, in a state we love for its patchwork of small family farms, it sounds like not just the end of an era, but the end of the world.