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Leaf season is here, but crop totals wane

SoVaNow.com / September 09, 2019

Reviving a largely bygone era, the Virginia Carolina Warehouse in Clarksville will resume live tobacco auctions this month, offering a market alternative for growers who now sell their crop mostly under direct contract to cigarette makers and their purchasing agents.

It’s one of the few expansions of the Southside tobacco industry in recent years, however, as the crop that once lifted up the local economy continues to shed acreage.

In Southside Virginia’s four biggest tobacco-producing counties — Pittsylvania, Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax — acreage has plummeted by 30 percent in the past two years.

That’s according to USDA Farm Services Agency, which issued its latest farm production report in August. The four counties have just over 11,000 acres tied up in tobacco production, with Pittsylvania accounting for more than half of that total: 5,845 acres. Halifax has 1,783 crop acres this year, fourth among the four counties. Mecklenburg has 2,618 acres, and Brunswick has 1,895 acres.

Two years ago, tobacco was grown on 15,700 acres in the four counties that make up the heart of the Old Belt, Virginia’s historic flue-cured leaf growing region. In 2018, the four-county total held mostly steady, at 15,144 acres, before tumbling to 11,003 acres this year.

Virginia Farm Bureau struck a somber note on state of the industry in an Aug. 15 newsletter, noting that “[w]hile no longer the dominant cash crop in the state, tobacco was still a major income source until recently. Virginia tobacco farmers have been hurt by the decrease in exports this year.”

That decline in export sales, according to analysts, is due in large part to the tobacco industry’s dependence on the Chinese market and the impact of retaliatory tariffs in slowing commerce between the two countries.

Exports aside, growers are accustomed to dealing with uncertainty in their business, touching on everything from the weather to labor costs to the whims of leaf purchasing firms. According to Fred “Spider” Cook, general manager of Virginia Carolina Warehouse in Clarksville, this year’s crop is looking “average,” with many growers nearing the halfway point in their harvest with leaf ripening in the field.

Most growers have had at least one pulling, and some are nearly through with a second pulling, said Cook. The harvest will continue at least through mid-October.

He said this growing season was negatively affected by a very wet spring, which caused root damage, and a very hot and dry summer that caused plants to lose too much moisture. Dry weather in the late summer and fall will delay the completion of the harvest, he added.

Cook is looking to give growers an alternative to direct contracts with tobacco companies by resuming auction sales this month at the Virginia Carolina warehouse in Clarksville. Leaf auctions at the Route 15-S operation were last held several years ago.

Virginia Carolina is one of a handful of warehouses in the southeast U.S. that are reinstituting live auctions for the fall season, said Cook, citing Wilson, N.C. as another location where an auction warehouse is coming back to life after a long lull.

The renewed interest in tobacco auctions comes after growers saw major cuts in their production contracts earlier this year. Those cuts were dramatic in some cases, big enough to drive longtime growers out of the business. However, the most recent uptick in trade tensions between the U.S. and China won’t affect the contracts that have been signed this year because cigarette makers will go forward with their commitments, Cook said.

However, because the contracts offer a range of prices depending on the quality of the crop, growers still must worry whether this year’s crop will be a solid one, said Cook, or if it will disappoint. And next year, he added, the ongoing trade war is likely to further hurt prices and the quantities that buyers are willing to purchase.

In the short term, growers have no choice but to set aside those concerns and pray for a more immediate need: some rainfall.

Nationally, Virginia ranks number 3 among tobacco-producing states, behind No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky.



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Comments

Somber news that tobacco is down? really? tobacco one of the biggest causes of lung cancer and we should feel sorry? ok. well hemp will replace tobacco and we are in a shift. All those tobacco fields laden with pesticides- glyphosate will need remediation to remove poisons from the soil.

Comments

Do you realize how much money tobacco puts in people's hands in VA, NC, SC and all over the world for that matter, how many people are employed/benefit from this industry? Do you realize how much the government makes and depends on tobacco tax dollars? So much good has come from tobacco, Duke Hospital, Duke University, Baptist Hospital, Wake Forest University, all built from tobacco money. Everything can cause cancer, eat too many burgers at McDonalds! Drink too much alcohol! Southside Va would be nothing if not for tobacco money! Tobacco pays my bills, not the government!

Comments

John M people like move on have no clue. They got on the high horse and want to tell what everyone what they should do. They should feel sorry if tobacco goes done. It also pays my bills, bet move on does not mind the millions the tobacco commision gives to the county.


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