Face of change different for tobacco industry today

From the beginning, change has been an almost constant moving target in the U.S. tobacco industry. It's no different today, even though the stakes may be a little higher, and the face of change has changed.

The difference between yesterday, today and the future was no more evident than at the Cape Fear Museum's photo exhibit of tobacco barns and the symposium “What Lies Down Tobacco Road?”

In the exhibit area we found photos of tobacco barns and a first-class presentation of the remembrances of tobacco farmers and workers. In the conference we heard a comprehensive discussion of the history of tobacco in the Southeast, a presentation of the situation today and a moving talk by a young tobacco farmer.

“Tobacco is not a dying industry,” said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “It's a changing industry, a fast-changing industry that will continue to be a vital part of the economy of North Carolina.” The future will mean fewer, larger farms to take advantage of technology. Capital, as it is today, will be the biggest and most expensive tool used on the tobacco farm, Wooten says.

Change in the tobacco industry happens fast and furious when it happens. For example, when producers combined forces to form a co-op in the early 1920s, tobacco companies went south, seeking producers in Georgia and Florida to grow flue-cured. In 1938, when the Supreme Court ruled against the cooperative, prices went to nothing. Growers voted in another program in 1940. Since then, it's been one of the best programs in USDA history, said Ben Kittrell, director of Clemson's Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

Mechanization came hard and fast in the 1960s. The 1990s brought curing changes and concerns, as well as the master settlement and contracting.

The contracting issue is a prime example of just how fast things happen in the tobacco industry, Kittrell says. More than 80 percent of flue-cured growers chose to market their tobacco through contracts with manufacturers last year.

Blake Brown, North Carolina State University Extension ag economist, says contract prices out-stripped auction prices by five cents to six cents last year. As to the future of the industry, should the tobacco program remain with the current price support, he believes exports will erode, imports will increase and quota will stabilize around 600 million pounds. Most tobacco will be sold by contracts, but auctions will remain.

If the tobacco program is eliminated, prices will decline significantly, exports will expand, while world production of flue-cured and burley production worldwide will be relatively unchanged.

It would be hard for auctions to survive without a tobacco program, Brown says.

Contracting is one of the reasons the North Carolina Farm Bureau president says a buyout is necessary. It has changed the landscape of the industry.

Jody Clemmons is a living example of the industry. He's a young farmer who knows why he grows tobacco and can tell you how much it costs to produce a crop. Talking to the group filled with mostly non-farm folks, he laid out his costs by converting it to the number of pickup trucks he could buy.

But it was when he looked at a slide of he and his young son the economics paled. “I was raised on a tobacco farm and I love what I do,” said Clemmons, while choking back tears. “I love what I do and I want my little boy to be able to grow tobacco if he wants to.”

In helping to plan the symposium, Phillip Ricks, Brunswick County, N.C., Cooperative Extension director, said he wanted to make sure all the facets of the industry were correctly portrayed.

“We wanted to show the farmer's perspective,” says Jennie Ashlock, education coordinator at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, N.C. The photo exhibit continues at the museum until May 27.

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