PRC tobacco is grown using only certain fertilizers and pesticides which break down quickly. After the tobacco cures in a barn, sample testing is done to ensure there are no detectable residues of fertilizers or pesticides.

“The cost of production is going to be higher if you don’t use MH (maleic hydrazide), but it can be done. You would sure rather use MH, because it requires less labor and you get a higher yield. But if you have high quality tobacco, SFNTC (Sante Fe National Tobacco Company) gives you a fair price for it. The premium that Santa Fe pays for PRC tobacco makes it profitable for us,” Vick says.

Residue-free production PRC is the way the tobacco industry is headed, says Vick. “The future for U.S. tobacco growers lies with the export market, since taxes make it increasingly more difficult to sell tobacco in the domestic market,” he says.                  

For North Carolina growers the tax question might get even more challenging, if proposed legislation is passed. A bill was introduced that would add $1 tax on each pack of cigarettes. The current tax, one of the lowest in the country, is 45 cents. Anti-smoking groups contend the tax could raise about $300 million and keep teenagers from smoking and reduce the number of adults who smoke. Republican leaders say they don’t plan on raising taxes on tobacco or alcohol.

“To build export markets, we have to look at growing more PRC-type tobacco. Our competition is not other U.S. growers: It’s with Brazil, Argentina and Canada, countries that don’t use MH,” Vick adds.

The prospect of losing MH was one of the reasons the Vicks got into PRC in the first place. “We thought having some experience in growing a crop without MH would make us better prepared when the rest of the industry goes in that direction,” he says. “And this way we would get paid for it.”

Vick adds, “On our PRC tobacco, we spray five to seven times with contact chemicals which leave no residue,” he says. “We clean out suckers by hand at least three times. If the tobacco stays in the field a long time or if it is over-fertilized or if it gets a lot of rainfall, we might have to clean it out a fourth or even a fifth time. We sure hope not because that means more labor. On our conventional we usually only have to clean it out twice by hand.”

Vick Family Farms, which includes one of North Carolina’s largest sweet potato operations, grew about 200 acres of PRC tobacco last year. They also grew 400 acres of conventional flue-cured tobacco and 50 acres of burley tobacco.

In the Piedmont area of North Carolina, The PRC program has been a boon for small and middle-sized growers , says Ronald Stainback of Middleburg, N.C. 

Last year Stainback had 100 of the 285 acres he grows with his sons Rodney and Ronnie in the program. They have participated in the program since 2001.