A uniformly upbeat crowd of farmers, exhibitors and speakers attended the 2013 Southern Farm Show in Raleigh.
“I’m not sure I can remember a year in the last 20 where we had the optimism among farmers that we have this year,“ said North Carolina Extension Economist Blake Brown.
And there was no mystery why. Nick Piggott, North Carolina Extension agricultural economist, was one of many who said that North Carolina’s agricultural outlook is promising.
“I’m very excited about North Carolina’s prospects,” he said.
“But things could be better if the state could get over the logistical problem of developing our ports and railways to facilitate foreign trade,” said Piggott, who was keynote speaker at the North Carolina Ag Development Forum held at the show. “We (need to be able) to better transport the necessary imports to sustain our livestock industry.”
And there could soon be new foreign trade opportunities. U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina told the Tobacco Growers Association of N.C. meeting, which took place during the Southern Farm Show, that more foreign trade agreements may be looming in the near future.
“We ought to have trade agreements with everyone around the world that we can,” said Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, N.C. “The biggest beneficiary... is going to be a state like North Carolina, because agriculture is the 800-pound gorilla that the U.S. has to (put into) play in international markets.”
Burr was also optimistic about the possibility of realistic immigration reform in 2013. “I have great hope that we are going to be able to do something this year (and that it will be) something that 99 percent of you would agree embraces everything you believe.”
The tobacco growers got unexpected support from Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, who had just taken office the previous month. He told the growers association that agriculture will be the segment of the economy that helps get North Carolina out of the current recession.
He is going to help as much as possible, particularly with tobacco. “When I go on international trips, one of the first things I’m going to mention is tobacco exports,” he said. “We are going to talk about the exports of tobacco, which will help this state and our nation.”
Back to tobacco?
One of the farmers at the show with a big decision to make was Clark Wooten of Dunn, N.C., who talked to Southeast Farm Press while checking out flue-curing barns at the show. He said he is contemplating a major change in the crops he produces in the near future.
For most of the last 20 years, he has been primarily a sod producer, selling bermudagrass, zoysia and sods of other types. In response to the higher grain prices, he has put in some corn, wheat and soybeans the last few years.
But now he is thinking about a more drastic step.
“I am seriously considering getting back into tobacco,” he said.
“With the decline in the economy, the sod business has shrunk, so this might be a good time to get back into tobacco.”
He thinks he would benefit from what in effect would be a 20-year rotation. “We have gone so long without growing any tobacco at all that I just can't imagine we have much black shank in the soil.”
Until 1993, his farm had been a tobacco operation.
“But we were going to have to buy new balers and to convert from rack barns to box barns,” he said. “At the same time, we were expanding in sod. There was a limited amount of funding, and we decided we would put it into our sod operation.”
He likes the advances that have been made in tobacco mechanization. “I think now it is possible to raise quality tobacco with mechanization equal to the quality you get with hand harvest,” he said.
“I think mechanization — as opposed to production by hand — is the way to go in tobacco.”
Tobacco will in all likelihood make its return to the Wooten farm soon. “But more likely in 2014 than 2013,” he said. “We don't have time to make the change this year.”
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It appears the tobacco market is going to need more U.S. tobacco in the immediate future and probably farther on out, said Ron Taylor, owner of Taylor Manufacturing Co.
“But the barns that are out there now are over-utilized. We need substantially more new barns to produce the tobacco our customers want.”
At the same time, he said growers need to compete more effectively with other tobacco-producing countries.
“Energy-efficient curing is one way to accomplish this,” he said. “Here at Taylor Manufacturing, we are making barns out of insulated paneling that will be more energy efficient.”
North of border
There was a little optimism from north of the border too. Retired Ontario tobacco farmer Larry DeCarolis of Waterville, Ontario, was one of a number of the Canadian farmers who attended the show.
Formerly a tobacco grower, DeCarolis said the new tobacco marketing system in Canada has been working quite well since the buyout there in 2008.
DeCarolis was looking for ideas for family members who are still growing tobacco, but there was definitely some sticker shock.
“I priced kilns (barns) here, and they are up to $40,000 now,” he said. “It would be hard to justify a purchase that large in the situation we have now.”
But the tobacco infrastructure isn't as old in Canada as it is in the United States, said DeCarolis, so replacing it isn't as urgent.
The Upper Southeast's love affair with cotton is cooling. According to the National Cotton Council planting intentions survey ―released shortly after the Southern Farm Show ―cotton acreage this season will be just under 400,000 in North Carolina. That would be a third less than in 2012.
South Carolina acreage is projected at 265,000 acres, 11 percent less than 2012.
And Virginia acreage is projected at 62,000, down 28 percent from a year ago.
Survey participants who were reducing cotton planting told the NCC that in general they are shifting to corn and soybeans, with soybeans more heavily favored as the alternative, the council said. Where participants indicated an increase in cotton acres, the land appeared most frequently to come from peanuts.
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