2003 was a year of headlines in upper Southeast

The year 2003 will be remembered for politics, weather and tobacco.

Top among the stories: The continuing push toward a tobacco buyout. Congress will take up the issue when it reconvenes Jan. 20.

In North Carolina, scandal hit the department of agriculture. Meg Scott Phipps resigned her elected post under pressure in June. She was indicted on federal and state charges related to her campaign for ag commissioner. Three top aides pleaded guilty to federal charges and testified against her in the state trial. She was convicted in state court and spent time in jail before a sentencing hearing. In federal court, she pleaded guilty to charges, including extortion, thus avoiding a trial.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley appointed long-time department employee Britt Cobb as interim commissioner in June. Cobb was named commissioner in December.

In the tobacco arena, Philip Morris and six other major tobacco companies agreed to pay $200 million and buy U.S. tobacco in the future to settle a lawsuit that alleged price fixing. In settling the suit, the tobacco companies did not admit guilt. The suit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which did not agree to the settlement, is scheduled to begin in April. Growers said the settlement would help stabilize the industry for the next 10 years.

R.J. Reynolds and B&W Tobacco Corp. merged during the year.

In mid-December, the USDA announced a 10.45-percent cut in flue-cured quota. Farmers had been looking at a 22-percent cut.

A hurricane hit North Carolina and Virginia in 2003. While it wasn’t the magnitude of ones in late 1990s, Hurricane Isabel did do concentrated damage on the east North Carolina coast. The Category 2 hurricane caused more than $125 million damage in North Carolina. Hyde County, N.C., producer Dick Tunnell said it was the "worst we’ve experienced." Five-foot surges of saltwater rushed over his fields in Swan Quarter. He lost vegetable crops to the storm. Homes suffered severe damage.

Peanut growers in the upper Southeast are still experiencing fallout from a new program. Virginia took the hardest hit in production, reducing acreage to around 33,000 acres in 2003. In a state where tradition holds that peanuts were first planted commercially before the Civil War, farmers could plant fewer than 33,000 in 2004, some say.

Peanut acreage in North Carolina shifted toward the southeast portion of the state and increased some. Acreage in South Carolina increased by about 8,000 acres and moved toward the mid- and southern-parts of the state. South Carolina could see another increase in acreage in 2004 as the shake out continues over the new peanut program influenced by markets.

Out in the field, steady rains throughout much of the growing season were the story. Excessive rains delayed planting in the spring. The skies cleared up near harvest and rewarded growers with good crops. North Carolina cotton producers were estimated to harvest an average of 686 pounds of lint per acre, 36 percent more than in 2002. An increase in cotton prices also had farmers happy.

North Carolina soybean producers had estimated average yields of 31 bushels per acre. North Carolina peanut producers had average yields of 3,000 pounds per acre, more than 900 pounds per acre than in 2002. Corn growers had average yields of 110 bushels per acre, 27 bushels more than in 2002.

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