Billy Carter got into organic tobacco production in a serendipitous way that fit into conventional production of crops, and now the two concepts work well in tandem, says the Eagle Springs, N.C., grower.

Carter, who grows more than a thousand acres of conventional and organic crops, says he first became interested in organic production in the mid-1990s.

Always looking for new crops and new approaches to growing crops, he explored the possibilities for using some land that had been in a long rotation on his farm for organic production.

“At that time there wasn’t a good crop to grow organically — at least not one I felt I could commit to long-term and make it profitable in my farming operation,” Carter says.

Then in 1998 serendipity stepped in and Carter’s new found knowledge of organic farming fit perfectly with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company’s efforts to develop organic tobacco for use in their line of additive-free tobacco products.

“We were already growing conventional tobacco at the time. I knew enough about organic farming and conventional tobacco to believe I could start out with a clean growing environment, and make tobacco adaptable to an organic production system,” he adds.

So, he set out to convince Santa Fe to give him a contract to grow organic tobacco.

In those early days Santa Fe was mostly interested in contracting growers near their headquarters in Oxford, N.C. It took some convincing, but Carter ultimately got a contract for 4,000 pounds of tobacco, which he grew organically on three acres.

Billy Carter, organic farmer and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, organic tobacco product manufacturer kind of grew up together. Now, the company buys approximately 2.7 million pounds of organic tobacco annually and Billy Carter will grow about 100 acres in 2012.

In those early years, Carter saw the opportunity for bigger organic tobacco acreage in the future and he began to get more and better land certified for organic production.

Santa Fe went through some growing pains and initially had some problems getting the acreage they wanted for organic tobacco.

Demand has risen significantly

Subsequently the company has gone through several growth spurts and demand for organic tobacco products has risen significantly over the past few years.

In addition to growing organic tobacco, Carter also produces organic tobacco transplants, which, he admits, can be challenging from time to time.

In 2011, he grew enough organic transplants to produce 150 acres of organic tobacco. In 2012, he will double his greenhouse capacity, with the construction of a new greenhouse that is better suited to organic transplant production.

“During the time we were growing our organic tobacco business, we looked at growing other crops, like sweet potatoes and sweet corn. We could grow the crops successfully, but we could never make them profitable enough to justify investing in the infrastructure needed to market these crops ourselves,” Carter says.

“The people he hired to do the packing and marketing did exactly what they promised to do — they were straight up people — no problems with that,” he says.

“Unless you can do your own packing and marketing, it’s hard to make it profitable,” he adds.

With organic products there are two primary ways to market crops. At one level you have farmers markets and small retail operations who are as interested in knowing the farmer as they are interested in the food product the farmer produces.

Then the North Carolina farmer says, he doesn’t have the mindset, nor the ambition to make that organic market work for him.

At the other end of the spectrum are large scale commercial operations which are already putting organic commodities into the marketplace, along with conventionally grown commodities.

And, his organic farming operation isn’t yet large enough to get into the larger market, Carter says.

“We do grow organic soft and hard red wheat. It’s not as profitable as tobacco, but it fits well into our organic cropping system,” Carter says. There is a rapidly increasing demand for organic grain and the North Carolina grower is positioning himself for that market, much the same way he did with organic tobacco more than a decade ago.

In 2012, he hopes to push organic crops to more than 300 acres, or about a third of his entire farming operation. His conventional farming operation includes tobacco, which is not necessarily a good thing for his organic tobacco production.

“Any time you grow parallel crops, or the same crop conventionally and organically, there is a heightened scrutiny by the agencies that certify farmland as organic.

“While it’s necessary to prevent co-mingling of organic and conventional, it can be time consuming, and it has been an impediment for us because we are not in a position with our other crops to grow them organic,” Carter says.

In his conventional operation he grows soybeans, tobacco, small grains, sweet corn, strawberries, watermelons, and tomatoes.

Conventional crops fit also

Despite being in the organic business for 13 years, he says fitting his conventional crops into his organic mix remains an ongoing challenge. “We can’t just say ‘we’re organic growers’ because of the marketing challenges.

“I don’t plan to ever be 100 percent organic — I like both methods of farming, and I don’t think one will work to the exclusion of the other the way our farm is set up,” he says.

Wheat has proven to be the proverbial low hanging fruit when it comes to parallel production of conventional and organic crops.

“The major difference for us is fitting organic wheat in a rotation with organic tobacco.”

Most of his tobacco goes to European markets, so he has to have European organic certification, which doesn’t allow for the use of poultry litter. That takes away the primary source of nitrogen for wheat, he says.

The other issue is timing of planting wheat. You have to plant organic wheat late enough to avoid Hessian fly on the front side and still have enough tillers set before freezing weather hits to make a full crop going into the spring.

“Then, there is some serious cleaning of wheat harvest equipment, because we don’t have dedicated organic and conventional wheat combines. Plus, the increased record keeping involved with growing parallel crops is a problem,” the North Carolina grower says.

Wheat also fits well into his organic rotation. He plants wheat as soon as he gets tobacco out in late summer. Then, he puts a soil-building summer-winter-summer cover crop consisting of sudangrass in the summer, followed by rye and vetch in the winter and sudangrass prior to tobacco, followed by another wheat crop. This three-year rotation provides an extra premium price for his organic tobacco.

A part of the extra value for organic tobacco, he notes, comes from the extra risk associated with leaving land without a crop for two years.

He can grow one wheat crop and build up his soil with his winter/summer/winter cover crops. “You are doing something real good for your soil, but you don’t get any direct income from that land,” he says.

“Though leaving the land without a crop is technically a fallow crop, we think we are getting a true advantage in terms of extra nitrogen and more importantly from the pest control benefits of having land out of crop production for about a year and a half,” Carter says.

“We have really grown fond of sudangrass in the rotation over the years, because it offers a lot of really quick growth and it competes very well with most weeds. We control our weeds by not letting it go to seed,” the North Carolina grower adds.

The extra cost of producing organic tobacco differs from year to year, he says, but generally is 20 percent or more higher than conventional production costs. There is more labor and most of the inputs are more expensive — none are less expensive, he says.

For anyone interested in getting into organic farming, Carter urges them to think about long-range plans for setting up a cropping system.

How organic crops interact with one another is highly critical in an organic system, because of the limitations you have on pest control and building soil fertility, he says.