But the results were not satisfactory. It didn't contribute the profit he felt he needed to justify the investment required. So he sold his equipment and got out in 2010, increasing his sweet potato acreage instead.

“I just wasn’t making enough money,” Rhodes said. “I figured I needed about 60 cents a pound more than I was getting.”

The big problem was the cost of curing fuel. It seemed to him that he wound up owing an awful lot to his LP gas provider.

The capital cost was a problem too. “Starting tobacco farming from scratch was very hard. I had to buy all my equipment when I started, and that was very expensive.”

Rhodes didn't get into tobacco production completely “off the street,” he said.

“I had a little experience myself working for my uncles who had tobacco, but never as an owner and never from a management position,” said Rhodes, who also has a logging business. “The main thing at the beginning was I didn’t know how to cure it. But I learned.”

He tried to exploit a market for a different kind of flue-cured by growing entirely residue-free tobacco for Santa Fe Natural Tobacco. But it didn't give good enough results either.

“The company paid a premium for it, but it wasn’t enough to offset the cost of controlling suckers without MH (maleic hydrazide).”

Still, Rhodes hasn't given up on tobacco as a component of his farm, if he can do it without incurring the high cost of curing fuel.

“I am thinking now about getting into burley or dark tobacco,” he said. “Both of those are cured in the air, and I have buildings I could rig up to house an air-cured type. I think there may be a little potential for dark, since smokeless tobacco products are on the rise,” he said.

 “One-year contracts don't give incentive for growers to get into tobacco,” said W.K. Collins, retired North Carolina Extension agronomist. “I am glad to see more multi-year contracts seem to be available now.”

Nevertheless, tobacco is not going to be an easy sell to new farmers as long as prices for alternative crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and sweet potatoes stay high, he said.

“I am just not optimistic right now about the addition of tobacco to farms where it hasn't been grown recently.”

Although organic tobacco didn’t work out for Rhodes, Collins said the premium paid for it may get high enough to attract new growers. “Manufacturers of organic tobacco can't get enough to meet their needs, and there is still plenty of need for residue-free leaf,” he said. “New farmers could find a niche for themselves producing these products.”

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