This used to be a healthy tobacco crop in Myrtleford but now it’s just dry, useless, poisoned land. There is a feeling of resentment in the town towards the government for the tokenistic payouts the farmers are receiving. There’s also a lot of anger towards the illegal tobacco trade in Australia because it has really affected the majority of farmers who were content to do business via legitimate channels.
TEXT BY BRENDA WALSH PHOTOS & CAPTIONS BY JONATHAN WEST At any given moment, there are approximately 1.1 billion people around the world (that’s one sixth of the population) sucking back an estimated total of 6 million tonnes of tobacco a year. To put this into perspective, it takes roughly 1 kilo of tobacco to make 1,000 cigarettes which means that our calculator imploded when we tried to do the math, but let’s just say it’s around 5,500,000,000,000 (5.5 trillion) cigarettes a year. Instant population control with a charcoal filter—way to go smokers! Until recently, a portion of the world’s tobacco has been grown in Australia in a deceivingly tranquil town, just a few hours out of Melbourne, called Myrtleford. For decades, the local farmers have been fulfilling annual contracts worth $90 million to supply the major cigarette manufacturers with tobacco, which sounds great until you consider that after the government took their hefty share, the farmers were left with a measly $2.5 million between them; barely enough to plant the next season’s crops. The obvious side effect of such insanely exorbitant taxes was a healthy illegal tobacco trade, which basically consisted of black market dealers buying bales of tobacco directly from the farmers and passing on the tax cut benefits to everyone in the chain. This meant that for the same bale of tobacco that a grower would get $700 via legitimate channels, they could expect to get up to $7,000 dollars in cold hard cash through the black market. It’s not difficult to see how insanely tempting this would have been, but when farmers started being robbed for bales and the ATO cracked down and began imposing fines and revoking growing licences, it kind of took most of the shine off. Illegal tobacco is known as chop chop and although the trade is diminishing, you can still find it in milk bars around the country, wrapped in newspaper under the counter and sold for about a quarter of the price of a regular pack of roll-your-own. Right now, most of the farmers in Myrtleford have lost their crops to drought and their tobacco contracts to competitors like China and Brazil and it gets worse still. It turns out that the potent cocktail of chemicals they sprayed onto their tobacco crops has left a legacy of the highest incidence of breast cancer in the country as well as poisoning the soil and rendering the fields unusable for the next seven years. They even face fines of up to $50,000 and imprisonment if they continue to grow tobacco and sell it on the black market which has led to some people growing weed as a way of making a bit of extra cash. Bleak, no? Our friend, Jonathan West, met a couple of ladies from Myrtleford at a black metal club in Melbourne last year and went home with them to meet the parents and take some pictures. He’s just finished a screenplay for a film loosely based on his experiences there, which is going to make Wolf Creek look like a walk in the park with Walt Disney. Jonathan’s film, which follows the lives of a group of teenagers over a summer and the disturbing consequences of some of their actions, will be out once he finds a producer and a million bucks. www.welcometomyrtleford.com