Tobacco grower pin-points industry concerns

In a room full of farmers, Pender Sharp would be the spokesman.

Sharp boils down the argument to its essence and leaves little doubt about the path to be taken.

"Give us a buyout and you can do what you want with the bells and whistles."

"The folks against Food and Drug Administration regulation of cigarettes are serving as a stumbling block to a quota buyout."

"We’re in a farm crisis worse than the Great Depression."

Raised on the same operation where he’s now a partner, Thaddeus Pender Sharp III (known as Pender) farms with his father, Thaddeus Pender Sharp, Jr., son, Thad IV, and brother, Alan. They raise flue-cured tobacco, sweet potatoes, hogs, soybeans and cotton.

"He’s our spokesman," says his son, Thad IV, and brother, Alan.

He’s got plenty to talk about these days.

Like the family members who own a part of the family farm, Pender began putting in long hours early in his life. He grew up in 4-H and FFA and learned a strong sense of community involvement. "Our family philosophy has been that life’s been good to us and we owe something back in the form of church and school involvement and being proactive for agriculture.

"The greatest part of being in a family operation is the continuity of the business opportunity," Pender says. The farm near Sims, N.C., in Wilson County is now in its fifth generation. Pender points to three separate aerial photos of the farm in his office. The photos, taken over a period of time from 1972 to 1992, show the growth of the family farm.

"This is a family farm," Pender says. "Fathers, sons and grandsons who are corporate stockholders in family operations define the ‘family farm’ of today. That’s typical across America. That’s just the nature of the beast."

Congress has a tough time with the nature of the family farm today, Pender believes. "The public image of a family farm is one of nostalgia," he says. "Most people are at least three generations removed from the reality of agriculture."

In reality, farmers face some of the worst times since the Great Depression, Pender believes. Tobacco farmers are among that group under the gun.

Quota cuts and declining markets have whittled the flue-cured tobacco acreage at Sharp Farms by about 100 acres. The investment for 200 acres still remains.

"The worst part about the dilemma we’re in is all the things we (as an industry) could have done to avoid the problem," Pender said in late May. "We needed to be more realistic about price support 10 or 15 years ago. Our support was in the $1.50 range while cost of production was 80 cents.

"We lost sight of the fact that we were growing for a customer," Pender says.

Pender believes the time is right for a tobacco buyout this year. "The stars are aligned for it to happen," he says. "But we still have the problem of people who are opposed to FDA regulation of cigarettes. They’re serving as a stumbling block."

Last year at a meeting, Pender told a packed house that growers were mainly concerned about the $8 and $4 of a buyout. The "bells and whistles" of a buyout package weren’t primary.

A buyout should "set us free from the shackles of the program" and "move us to a free market," Pender says.

Without FDA regulation, a buyout may not be able to pass Congress, Pender says. "FDA regulation brings on a number of health groups" and others that normally wouldn’t be supportive of tobacco issues.

"There’s no way FDA can hurt us any worse than we’re being hurt today," Pender believes. "It could actually be a positive as far as imported tobacco is concerned.

"Tobacco has made some strange bedfellows," Pender says. "One of the keys to passage (of a buyout) is Ted Kennedy."

Tobacco has seen a lot of lost opportunity in the past, Pender says. "This will be the last time we can afford to miss an opportunity."

After a buyout, Pender sees the need for a "safety net," whatever form that may take. But again, he goes back to his "bells and whistles" argument. "All of those things are secondary to the major issue: becoming more price competitive and removing quota value."

Regardless of the structure in a post-buyout world, it will be simply a matter of contracting with companies, Pender believes. He contracts with Philip Morris USA.

"Those who can provide the companies with a product they can make money with will continue to grow," he says. Philip Morris, as the largest cigarette manufacturer, will largely determine how much tobacco will be grown post-buyout.

"I fail to see where that’s much different than what it is today," Pender says.

"Contracting has been a good thing," he says. The guarantee of price support "lulled" growers to sleep over the years.

Contracting, Pender says, has shown growers "there’s a premium for desirable tobacco that is grown, cured and presented properly in the marketplace free of any foreign matter.

"My philosophy is if they want it upside down and purple, we can deliver it if they give us the lead time," Pender says.

Attention to detail makes for a quality crop. As the Sharps employ traditional methods recommended by Extension, they pay close attention to planting dates and nitrogen rates. "I feel young plants need an immediate shot of nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous," Pender says. Cultivation is held to a minimum to prevent root damage. Sanitation and disease control are foremost.

The key element is harvesting ripe tobacco. "That has to be your No. 1 objective," Pender says. These days he’s avoiding the bottom leaves at harvest and topping lower.

While he didn’t take part in the lawsuit against tobacco companies, Pender calls the action "courageous."

"I have great regard for those guys who pursued a lawsuit because they were doing it on behalf of the whole industry," Pender says. "I felt I couldn’t be involved in suing our customers. They probably brought to light some of the problems."

The settlement won’t mean a lot financially to growers, he says. "More importantly is the 10-year agreement to purchase U.S. tobacco." The purchase agreement is below current levels, but could hold significance down the road.

Cigarette manufacturers also offered $5 million to lobby for a quota buyout.

e-mail: [email protected]

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