There is a little more mystery surrounding the 2014 tobacco season than one normally expects, said the outgoing president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina at the organization's annual meeting Feb. 7.

Growers should think of themselves as explorers entering “uncharted territory,” said Brent Leggett, who grows flue-cured and fruits and vegetables near Nashville, N.C.

Speaking at the meeting, which takes place as part of the Southern Farm Show in Raleigh, N.C., Leggett said that the last vestige of the federal tobacco program will come to an end this year.

“The reality [is] that the tobacco program buyout funds have reached maturity,” he said. “The final buyout payments are occurring now, which means this will be the first year in a decade we have produced a crop that will not have the benefit of buyout payment assistance following the season. How will this dynamic affect the stability of the market moving forward?”

Another imponderable is the effect that weed seed found in U.S. flue-cured will have on market prospects. “We learned late last season that China has detected the presence of certain quarantined weed seed in some U.S. tobacco shipments,” he said. “Of particular concern is Palmer amaranth (pigweed). This alarm bell is an uncharted area for us. Could it result in lost exports to China?

“We must be assertive in developing necessary solutions and assurances to maintain the confidence of our customers.”    

That is especially significant this year because of China's new marketing initiative. “China is emerging this season with its own direct buying presence and is issuing contracts to U.S. growers,” he said. “This too is uncharted territory. Realizing that China represents the largest cigarette consumption market in the world, we must understand all of the dynamics this new activity indicates.”    

But it is not just China farmers U.S. growers should have on their minds. “As farmers, we value every customer—existing, emerging and prospective,” Leggett said. “Attention to quality and being consistent with a product that is uniform and reliable has never been more critical than it is in 2014.”