“Our farmers here were having some trouble staying afloat since the buyout, but PRC has given them a way to survive. The premium on PRC tobacco really helps us out,” Stainback says.

North Carolina was ravaged by record high nighttime temperatures, near record daytime heat and prolonged periods of drought last year. The impact of the bad weather has been widely reported on grain, cotton and peanuts, but it had equally devastating effects on tobacco, Stainback adds.

Despite the bad weather, the 2010 growing season produced some good quality tobacco in the North Carolina Piedmont.

“It was a hot, dry year, and we had to irrigate our tobacco three times, which is a lot,” he says. “But the quality was good. The only problem was a bit too much nicotine (probably due to the dry weather).  But it smoked good and looked good,” he adds.

Last year, Stainback used  the new organic-certified suckercide O-TAC, which all Santa Fe’s PRC and organic growers must use. Stainback says O-TAC performed well in 2010.

The PRC program was begun by Santa Fe to implement sustainable agricultural practices on conventional farms, says Fielding Daniel, Santa Fe director of leaf. “We pay the farmers a premium to not use certain systemic chemicals that leave residues on the leaf and promote sound cultural practices prescribed by the company.”

“Through the success of this program, we are using more PRC tobacco each year. The program has grown from just a few tobacco farmers when it first began in 1991 to more than 150 now. Most of them are located in North Carolina and southern Virginia. But the company is looking to contract PRC with growers in areas farther away to get additional styles of flue-cured tobacco, Daniel explains.

And more volume may be needed as well. In the nearly 20 years since the beginning of PRC production, SFNTC has gone from using no PRC leaf in its blends to more than 50 percent now, counting all its styles.

Tobacco isn’t the only Southeast-grown crop that has had to change production practices to meet export market demand. The meteoric rise in U.S. cotton production projected for 2011, for example, is a direct result of demands for fiber in China. If U.S. tobacco production is to expand significantly, meeting foreign demands seem certain to be at forefront of this growth.