Movement under way to create national tobacco checkoff program

Amovement has begun to seek a national tobacco checkoff to fund export promotion. A national grower association to administer it is also being sought.

Blackstone, Va., flue-cured grower Jerry Jenkins set the effort in motion when he addressed the annual meeting of Tobacco Associates. That's an organization that has historically conducted programs to increase the sale of U.S. flue-cured to foreign buyers.

But its activities have been severely curtailed in recent years as the funding for this organization — which has always been based on a per-pound grower assessment — has declined as production has fallen.

Now, drastic action is needed to maintain the momentum, says Jenkins, and he doesn't think it should be limited to growers of one type: Flue-cured, burley and dark tobacco growers should work together to achieve a national producer assessment.

“We have an opportunity right now to expand exports of American tobacco,” said Jenkins, who stepped down after serving 19 years as the board chairman of Tobacco Associates. “But in my opinion, it is a very narrow window of opportunity. We have to seize it.”

Once a national checkoff is in place, a national organization will probably be needed to administer it. Jenkins said Tobacco Associates (TA) could be that organization or serve as the basis for it. Tobacco Associates has represented only flue-cured growers in the 60 years of its existence, but it recently amended its bylaws to accept growers of other types on its board.

Burgaw, N.C., farmer Allen Wooten, who succeeded Jenkins as TA chairman at the March meeting, endorsed the idea for an expanded role for the organization.

“It will probably require some adjustments, but Tobacco Associates personnel have often promoted American burley in the past in connection with their flue-cured work, so they can work for other types,” Wooten told Southeast Farm Press.

The industry has changed, and farmers need to change with it, he said.

“Tobacco needs viable promotion; it is extremely essential for the future livelihood of tobacco farmers,” Wooten said. “Tobacco Associates has done the ground work to carry this promotion forward for all types. But we will have to have a long-term investment from growers to make this work.”

Roger Quarles, a Georgetown, Ky., burley grower and president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative in Lexington, Ky., also voiced his support for the idea.

“It makes sense to me,” he said. “This is a great time to form a national tobacco growers organization and get our heads together and form a coalition: Every other country has one.”

He said he had discussed the idea with many of his fellow burley growers.

“We are interested in talking about ways to collaborate in the promotion of our product,” he said. “It should be possible to share expense of targeting markets which have the potential to use our burley as well as our flue-cured.”

The new organization can be “as formal or as informal as we would like,” but he predicted there would be incentive to broaden the scope of activities beyond just exports.

“With the reduction in plantings, growers will find it more difficult to influence policy,” he said. A national tobacco growers organization might be a way to regain some influence.

Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates, said the organization has closed its longstanding office in Washington, D.C., and eliminated two staff positions.

It hasn't terminated any of its promotional activities, but there has been some cost cutting: TA no longer assumes the cost of providing any services in potential markets, as it was in the habit of doing.

“In the past we had the luxury of paying some of the cost of these programs, but now we can only offer them on a fee basis,” said Wayne. “We believe that this way we can maintain our programs and the integrity of our operations and still stay within our budget.”

The leader of a tobacco farmers organization that covers all types said it would be an enormous challenge to create a national checkoff.

“It would be very hard to accomplish a major task like this,” said Keith Parrish of Benson, N.C., executive director of the National Tobacco Growers Association. “It would take a unified front of everybody involved. Each individual state organization would have to make a commitment.”

“It's harder to do something now without a big issue or strong leadership,” he said. “The buyout motivated a lot of people to take action. It is a ‘me’ environment now: Each individual farmer is working mainly toward surviving. There is not as much of a group identity as there used to be.

“In today's litigious world, you can't expect to easily cross over boundaries.

The environment is not conducive to bringing people together. You have so many dividing issues now that may be pulling farmers in different directions.”

But Parrish said if the support were there for a national checkoff, the National Tobacco Growers Association would be willing to move forward on it.

“We would be glad to talk about it with anyone. We always wanted to do the best for everyone and that desire still exists.

“Our organization is still in place, but has been largely inactive since the buyout. We have some money in our treasury now, but we are receiving no financial support from any of the states. Most of the state organizations are just trying to hang on themselves.

“It would be good to have an issue that would bring about a degree of cohesiveness among farmers. Immigration might be one.”

The officers of NTGA are Larry Sampson of Rowland, N.C., president; Lamar DeLoach of Statesboro, Ga., vice-president, and Greg Hyman of Conway, S.C., secretary- treasurer.

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