Tobacco growers marketing product

The cooperative that represents American flue-cured tobacco growers announced at its annual meeting it has created and is marketing a new cigarette.

Called 1839, the brand is a basic American blend containing flue-cured, burley and oriental. The marketing campaign officially began in May, and first deliveries to convenience stores took place the first week of June.

This is believed to be the first cigarette ever produced by growers in the U.S., said cooperative officials. But it is not the cooperative's first venture in marketing directly to consumers: The cooperative introduced a roll-your-own tobacco (RYO) product in 2006, also called 1839.

“For the first time, farmers have their own tobacco products on the market,” said cooperative president Albert Johnson of Galivants Ferry, S.C. “We think we are going to find our niche in the market and be very successful.”

Johnson emphasized that 1839 is as “All American” as an American blend cigarette can be.

“The flue-cured and burley leaf will all be produced in the United States,” he said. “But the Oriental will have to be imported, (because that type is not grown in this country).”

The price will probably be low, at least to begin with.

“When you enter the market, you are starting with zero market share,” said Johnson. “So we will do what we need to do to be competitive in price. We think the retailers might elect to sell it at maybe $2 to $2.30 a pack.”

Considerable flexibility in pricing and other areas will no doubt be required, but Johnson said the cooperative is prepared to take necessary steps.

“We are going to take the approach that we are going to do what we need to do when the timing is right,” he said.

Initially, the market area for the brand is Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, he said. As the sales effort is expanded, the other flue-cured states will be the next target markets.

The eye-catching art for the packs and cartons shows the image of a farmer plowing a field, with a stylized rendering of a flue-cured plant standing at the end of the row.

The rollout of 1839 was the accomplishment of a longstanding commitment. Developing a proprietary cigarette brand had been a formal goal of the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative since the deregulation of the American leaf industry in 2004, and it had been discussed even earlier.

So Johnson showed understandable excitement that the project has been finally begun. “It (cigarette manufacture) is the most profitable part of the tobacco business, and farmers deserve to be in it,” he said. “This is something our growers can reap a lot of benefits from. We feel that as we continue to improve this operation it will be very beneficial for growers. Yes, we are very excited about 1839.”

The currently available styles for the cigarette are full flavor both with and without filter, light, ultra light, and menthol full flavor and light. The 1839 brand is available in box and softpack, and in king and 100 size.

The roll-your-own version of 1839 was introduced in July of 2006. There are currently three styles of 1839 RYO: full flavor, mild and menthol. This is a small market now, but one that could become quite significant. “The RYO market is growing, and 1839 is showing steady growth,” said Johnson.

A member of the cooperative board who was active in the development of the 1839 products said a grower-owned brand could be very beneficial.

“It would give growers a place to go with their tobacco and be proud of how it is used,” said Richard Jenks of Apex, N.C. “At the same time, they get some returns from it, and they will be adding value to their product.”

And for Jenks, who retired June 8 from the cooperative board after 24 years of service, that makes a lot of sense.

“If I can sell a cabbage to you for the same price the grocery store would have charged you if I had sold it to them, then that is added value to my product,” Jenks told Southeast Farm Press. “This is what 1839 will do for flue-cured growers.”

The burley growers of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia will soon have a brand of their own also. Called Nashville, the brand is in the last stages of regulatory approval and could be on the market by the end of the year.

George Marks of Clarksville, Tenn., a tobacco farmer and president of Burley Stabilization Corporation of Knoxville, Tenn., attended the meeting in Timberlake and told Southeast Farm Press that like 1839, Nashville will be made using only U.S.-produced flue-cured and burley. But it too is an American blend, so it will contain some imported Oriental.

The name 1839 commemorates the year when a farmhand in Caswell County, N.C., accidentally discovered how to produce what came to be called “bright leaf” tobacco.

As the story goes, Stephen, a slave belonging to the Slade family, discovered the intense heat of charcoal when used as a curing fuel yielded yellow tobacco. He had fallen asleep on a rainy night and discovered when he awoke that the wood fires he was curing tobacco with had nearly died out. Stephen ran to a nearby blacksmith forge and returned with charcoal to re-stoke the fire. When he was done, the result was a barn full of very bright leaf.

So why isn't this type called “charcoal-cured?” Charcoal left an undesirable residual taste in the leaf, according to accounts of the time. After the Civil War, U.S. growers learned how to use furnaces outside the barns with flues that carried the heat inside. The charcoal taste was eliminated, and eventually the name “flue-cured tobacco” was adopted.

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