In the crisis-ridden land of tobacco, there's hope that shedding the tattered security blanket of the federal program will be tantamount to elevating the industry once again as the go-to source for tobacco in the world.
Larry Sampson sets out 500 acres of flue-cured tobacco this year, with an overall good feeling about working in a free market. Tobacco still goes in the ground four rows at a time on most farms. Missing is what he describes as “the luxury of having a federal program.”
The proverbial security blanket of a federal farm program gone, Sampson feels the freedom to get back to the levels he was at in 1997, before a six-year slide in tobacco quota led in part to a buyout.
In 1997, Sampson, who farms with John Oxendine in Robeson County, N.C., had more than 600 acres of flue-cured tobacco. In the first year without a program, he'll plant 500 acres, 50 more acres than last year.
“We've still got the uncertainty, but we feel pretty good starting out in a free market,” the 52-year-old Sampson said, while transplanting tobacco.
“I hope the free market is a good thing with tobacco. It's getting to where the biggest profit in agriculture is in the mailbox, and you better make sure it's cemented down.”
“Above everything else, this crop should be profitable enough so I don't have to take money from other sources in order to farm,” Sampson says. “I love to grow tobacco, but I love to make a living. I used Phase II money to continue farming tobacco. I won't use buyout money to keep farming.”
Growing tobacco on the free market will likely mean fewer growers with more acres, focusing on quality tobacco harvested from four stalk positions — growing for companies.
It's a world that Sampson had readied himself for even before the buyout.
He's been contracting now for five years, first with R.J. Reynolds in 2000 and now whole-hog with Philip Morris.
As a contract-grower, Sampson knows the mantra of growing what the customer needs.
“There's always been a home for good, ripe tobacco,” Sampson says as he makes a turn at the end of row on his tractor and lines up the transplanter, with four workers, to plant another four rows.
“The days of mediocre quality tobacco are gone,” he says. “We're either going to do top quality tobacco or we're going to be out of business. If for any reason ‘they’ decide to pull the contract, you're virtually without a market. You can't afford to produce for a wildcat market. I don't have other options.
“I have to produce quality tobacco,” Sampson says.
That means harvesting ripe, clean tobacco, free of weeds and foreign material, and “delivering a desirable product that they want.”
For Sampson, it means taking a little extra time to clean up the tobacco his mechanical harvesters have picked and exercising patience before heading to the field.
“The only thing that will stop us is weather,” Sampson says, “and sometimes it does us a favor. We sometimes have to be patient and not pull the tobacco green. Sometimes growing as many acres as we do, we're not able to get to the fields as quickly as we might like. Every time we get behind in harvesting we usually pull real good tobacco because we've let it mature in the field.”
While Philip Morris and other tobacco firms haven't weighed in on the agronomics of growing tobacco as of yet, it's a well-known fact that companies are requiring more stalk positions than in the past. “The stalk positions have changed,” Sampson says. “There was a time when harvesting tobacco twice would bring more than harvesting four times. Philip Morris asked for four stalk positions and we're going to try to give them four stalk positions.”
It should help the U.S. become more competitive in the world market, Sampson believes.
When Sampson visited Brazil in the early 1990s as a part of Philip Morris' Leadership Program, he noted that the U.S. was the only place growing flue-cured tobacco under a federal program. He also noted that U.S. tobacco had more aroma than foreign-grown leaf.
“Every company says we grow the best flue-cured tobacco in the world, so we've got that going for us,” Sampson says. “The only problem is, we don't grow a lot of it.”
Sampson quotes his friend, fellow flue-cured producer Jerome Vick of Wilson County, N.C.: “If you'll give me a chance, I'll grow tobacco with a peg and an oxen team and grow the best tobacco in the world.”
Eventually, Sampson believes, quantity of tobacco grown will catch up with quality.
“We'll sell tobacco cheaper this year, but we can't compete with Brazil on price alone.”
“As long as I can remember, tobacco has been in one crisis after another,” Sampson says. “With the tobacco program, we had to deal with quota cuts, barn insulation and heat exchangers,” Sampson says.
The buyout did not end those challenges. “I haven't seen a move to care about new growers coming on board,” Sampson says.
“I worry about who's going to grow tobacco in the future. I haven't seen any provisions for new growers.”