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‘To keep tobacco going, we must pay a fair price’

SoVaNow.com / July 31, 2013
Strolling past bales of tobacco lined up in the Piedmont Warehouse in Danville, Chuck Jordan speaks the patter of a tobacco auctioneer, a language understood by four buyers and several growers trailing behind him. The pace is fast. It takes only a few seconds for Jordan to evaluate, price and then sell off each bale.

The Piedmont Warehouse in Danville held the first tobacco auction of the season yesterday, almost two weeks before many area receiving stations will open. Of the four bidders, Clarksville’s Mac Bailey seemed to be the only one prepared to buy. By the end of the auction, a scant 30 minutes after it had started, he’d purchased every bale, at prices ranging from $2 to $1.50 depending on the quality of the leaf.

Prior to the auction, the manager of the Piedmont exchange, T.Y. Mason, and his partner Jim Eggleston walked around the warehouse, assessing the tobacco about to be auctioned. Most of the bales were bright gold in color “which is what you want,” said Mason. These will fetch the higher price, he predicted.

He described the Piedmont Warehouse as an alternative for growers: “We don’t worry about weight or water, or whether they have the right percentage of primings, cutters, and tips.” Mason added, “last year, growers with third and fourth quality tobacco [less favorable grades] did much better at auction than at the receiving station.”

Bailey says he prefers purchasing at auction rather than through a contract receiving station. Again, because it gives the farmer a better chance to get a fair price, he said.

Before the year is over, Bailey and his son Mike will purchase between 16 and 20 million pounds of tobacco for their manufacturing operation near the line between Charlotte and Lunenburg counties. S&M Brands makes cigarettes and tobacco products distributed under the names Baileys, Tahoe and Riverside, and employs nearly 100 people on the manufacturing side of his business.

With him at this first auction was Daryl Edwards, a retired tobacco grader for the USDA. He now works for Bailey grading his tobacco, and for Mike Bailey, who, according to his father, knows more about tobacco than any man in the area. Mike’s responsibilities involving processing and selling.

“Whether I paid too much is to be determined,” explained Bailey. “It’s still early [in the season for harvesting, grading and auctioning or selling tobacco]. But I was first and still do grow tobacco, so I know what’s involved in growing. It’s hard work, nobody’s willing to do, often seven days a week from sunup to sundown. If we want farmers to continue to grow tobacco, we have to pay them a fair price.”

When asked why he thought Bailey was the sole purchaser, Jordan replied, “He’s the one with the money. It’s not that the others don’t like the product. Today they’re just looking.”

On Wednesday, Bailey will be buying tobacco in South Carolina, while auctioneer Jordan will be back in Winston-Salem preparing for the opening of their market — around Aug. 16

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