Carolina grower grew up quick in farming

Wilson, N.C., farmer Linwood Vick grew up quick in the farming business — he had to — and at a young age has become one of the top tobacco and sweet potato farmers in the Carolinas.

Linwood’s father, Jerome Vick, built the family farming operation, which now includes about 5,000 acres, spanning three central North Carolina counties.

When his father was struck by Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 2002, Linwood, then in his mid 20s, had to step up and manage the day-to-day operation of the farm. He and his sister, Charlotte Ferrell and her husband, Dwayne Ferrell ran the farm.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances, the weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until the muscles cannot be used at all and the patient is almost totally paralyzed.

Linwood’s mother, Diane, stayed with his father as he struggled to survive and recover from the devastating effects of Gullain-Barre. Unable to talk, his father and mother devised a system of blinking his eyes — the only part of his body he could move — to represent letters in the alphabet. Using this system Jerome was able to relay minimal farming advice to his son and daughter.

Father and son agree it was a rough time, but one that helped build character, courage and determination.

Linwood won the North Carolina Outstanding Farmer of the year award in 2004 and his sister won the prestigious award last year.

Now fully recovered from Guillain-Barre, Jerome Vick is still the Patriarch of the family, but leaves much of the farming operation to his children.

Linwood plans all the crops, which include sweet potatoes, tobacco, soybeans, wheat and cotton — though cotton acreage is still not assured for 2009.

Charlotte manages the office, keeping track of all FSA rules and regulations and helps her mother manage the sizeable migrant labor pool (over 250 workers at peak season) required to run a large tobacco and sweet potato operation.

Dwayne Ferrell manages the sweet potato packing hours and handles sweet potato sales and shipping that includes their brand name sweet potatoes, Carolina Gold and Pure, and other potatoes processed at the packing plant.

In April the entire family was recognized for their farming efforts by winning North Carolina's 2009 State Conservation Farm Family Award. The family also received a signed proclamation from the North Carolina Senate recognizing their commitment to farming and conservation.

Examples of best management practices Vick Family Farms uses include planting sunflowers in truck rows in tobacco fields to help prevent soil erosion and to benefit wildlife, planting cover crops almost immediately after sweet potatoes are harvested to help prevent soil erosion, planting no-till cotton and no-till soybeans, installing borders around fields and grassed waterways.

Winning an award is a nice recognition, but Linwood Vick says that’s just the way he was raised — a part of his family tradition. Keeping the family farm successful and thriving is a challenge in today’s economy, he says.

Vick graduated from North Carolina State University’s Ag Institute in 1997. “It’s a great program and I learned a lot of valuable information that has helped me on the farm, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the farm,” he says.

He started curing tobacco on the farms farthest away from their home when he was 16 years old and when he returned from the Ag Institute, the younger Vick began doing all the tobacco curing on the farm.

“By the time my father got sick, I knew how to cure tobacco, and he was working me into the management of the farming operation. I made some of the decisions on soybeans and other crops not as vital to the farm, but when he got sick, I had to make all the decisions,” Linwood recalls.

“My father went into the hospital on Jan. 26, 2002. By March he could communicate some with my mother. When a 110 acre farm adjacent to some of our land became available, I made the real estate company handling the sale an offer.

“My mother was staying full time at the hospital with my father, so I called her and told her what I’d done, and my father communicated to her for me to make them a better offer cause mine was too low. By that time, the owner had accepted the offer, so we continued to build the farm even after my father got sick,” Linwood adds with a good laugh.

Among his biggest farming challenges in recent years has been to grow tobacco for a diminishing market. About half his tobacco acreage is PRC (purity residue clean) and half is regular tobacco. Vick explains that PRC tobacco eliminates the use of Royal MH and other chemical suckering agents and other pesticides containing organophosphates, carbamates and other pesticide material that can be retained in the tobacco leaf.

PRC tobacco requires more labor and more management. Whether the extra 30-35 cents a pound premium price offsets the extra costs of production depends on the quality of the tobacco, Vick says.

They sell their PRC tobacco to United Tobacco Company, which buys predominantly for Sante Fe Tobacco Company. “If you have high quality tobacco, you get a fair price for it. Sante Fe has been a great company to work with in selling our tobacco — they do it right and fair,” Vick explains.

Growers get a base price for their tobacco. Each bale of tobacco is sampled and only after it is verified PRC does the farmer get the premium price. Each bale has an ID number and a core sample is taken from each bale — much like a bale of cotton is tracked.

At the end of the day, growing PRC and regular tobacco nets about the same money. Vick says they grow PRC tobacco for two primary reasons: They have a great customer in Sante Fe who wants to buy PRC and he believes that PRC is the direction in which the tobacco industry is headed.

“Our competition for tobacco is not other U.S. growers, it’s Brazil, Canada and several African countries. None of these countries, uses MH-30 — that’s our competition. We had to learn how to grow tobacco using less chemicals long before PRC became a production practice, so growing it has been a natural progression for us,” Vick adds.

“The future for U.S. tobacco growers lies with the export market. Recent government taxes make it increasingly more difficult to sell tobacco in the domestic market. To build export markets we will have to look at growing more PRC type tobacco,” he says.

President Obama signed a law early in his administration to raise taxes from 39 cents to $1.01 per pack of cigarettes and from 19.5 cents to 50 cents per pound for chewing tobacco. Despite these setbacks for tobacco growers, Vick says the demand is still good for high quality tobacco. How long demand will remain with a pack of cigarettes now in the $5 range is a source of concern for all U.S. tobacco growers.

Vick, like his father, is active in tobacco and sweet potato growers associations. “It is critical, he says, to know what’s going on from a production and a political standpoint,” he says.

Growing up on a farm made jumping into managing a large farming operation a natural progression for Linwood Vick. Making the most of his opportunity is a good indication of his tendency for hard work and a good sense of business that he inherited from his father.

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