Quality tobacco holds key to future

Jody Clemmons is old enough to remember stick barns, but young enough to know where the fast-changing tobacco industry is headed.

The 30-year-old Supply, N.C., flue-cured tobacco producer sees quality as his link to the future. “Everybody wants to have the high yields, but we need to get back to growing our allocated pounds and watching our nitrogen levels,” Clemmons says.

Farming with his 57-year-old father, Waddell, Clemmons has a link to the history of the industry and the farm, as well as a vision of its future.

For Clemmons, that future involves paying close attention to growing the kind of tobacco cigarette manufacturers want — a process that begins in the greenhouse, but doesn't end until he delivers the pounds to the receiving station.

The future also involves staying politically active and even explaining the life of a farmer to the public at times.

Clemmons began seeding his greenhouse in mid-February. He grows enough transplants for 160 acres, although he'll plant 140 acres of flue-cured tobacco this season.

He follows Extension fertility recommendations and sends water samples off to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs for analysis. “With the greenhouse, it's a one-shot deal,” Clemmons believes. Meters help him keep track of fertilizer levels in the water.

Calling the greenhouse one of the major components of the operation, Clemmons keeps it well-ventilated, checking for diseases and problems with a walk-through every day. “If some kind of disease should break out, you want to be on top of it,” he says. To cut down on the risk of diseases, he keeps the greenhouse ventilated. “If you keep the greenhouse ventilated, there's less likelihood of diseases cropping up.”

The reason is simple. “Everybody's got a greenhouse now, so you can't run down the road to your neighbor's if you need plants,” he says. The extra 20 acres of transplants come in handy should he need extra plants. The transplants are clipped eight times to insure a strong root system.”

Earlier in the year he fumigated the land with Chlor-o-pic. “We had a good winter and a good spring with lots of sunny days and not a lot of rain,” Clemmons recalls. “We were able to fumigate our land early.”

As the tractors rolled through the field on April 9, workers dropped K-394 and NC 71 into transplanters, alongside 100 pounds per acre of a 16-0-0 Bulldog Soda.

The young farmer cultivates three times during the season and fertilizes twice. “We put the majority of our fertilizer on the first time and go back with a lower dose the second time,” he says.

He pays particular attention to nitrogen levels because of the sandy soils near the coast of southeastern North Carolina. The nitrogen rates vary from 80 pounds per acre to 95 pounds per acre.

He averaged 2,500 pounds per acre last season.

Clemmons is on an early-topping spray program. “Last year, we were able to get total clean-out after two sprays,” he says. “Starting with the chemical treatment early, you can get a good uniform crop and get the MH on it.” Uniformity adds to the quality at harvest, he points out.

“We try to keep a good relationship with the company because with all the changes that are going on, — and the possible end of the tobacco program — the companies are going to keep people growing tobacco who grow a quality crop,” Clemmons says.

At harvest, Clemmons crops three times by stalk position. Attention to fertility rates early in the season, as well as early topping, pays off at harvest, allowing him to cure ripe, even tobacco.

“I see quality as being the phrase of the future in flue-cured tobacco,” Clemmons believes.

But hard work in the field is no longer the solitary requirement for tobacco producers to make a living. Clemmons keeps track of changes through contact with legislators and the North Carolina Farm Bureau. He is on the board of directors of the Brunswick County Farm Bureau.

He and his wife Lauran, were members of the American Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee for the past two years. There, he learned the importance of staying involved with the process.

“You have to form coalitions to get a bill passed,” Clemmons learned.

The involvement also means keeping the general public up-to-date on the modern life of a farmer. At a recent conference on tobacco over the winter, Clemmons told his story in the form of economics.

“The amount of investment required today in agriculture and tobacco is tremendous,” Clemmons told a largely non-farm audience.

“Tractors and disks cost as much as four Suburbans,” he says. “A greenhouse is worth a pickup truck. A cultivator is worth half a pickup truck. And a curing barn is worth a pickup truck.

“A tobacco baler costs the same amount as a pickup truck,” he continued.

Despite the investment of capital, tobacco farming still remains a practice tied to the land and emotions. Clemmons became teary eyed, when he saw a photo of his 3-year-old son, Cole. “I was raised on a tobacco farm and I love what I do. I want my little boy to be able to grow tobacco if he wants to.”

Clemmons believes there will be a future in tobacco farming for his son. The key, he believes, is a continuing demand for quality, U.S.-grown tobacco. Using production practices that insure a quality crop will insure his future in the industry.

Maintaining contact with legislators will give tobacco farmers a voice in that future, he says.

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