Tobacco acreage in the Southeast isn’t likely to ever reach pre-smoking ban/high tobacco tax level days in the U.S., but in recent years niche markets have provided a good source of income for leaf growers in the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and eastern Tennessee.

The USDA Prospective Plantings, released on March 31, indicated U.S. flue-cured tobacco farmers intend to plant 213,000 acres for 2011. The report is based on USDA surveys of growers taken during the first two weeks of March.

By the time May transplanting season came, the March 31, planting intentions in some areas of the upper Southeast looked significantly different than in early March when the planting intentions survey was conducted.

Most tobacco transplants are in the ground now (mid-May), and there is optimism for a good crop in 2011. Long-term the optimism is more tempered by recent events that leave some growers wondering how long growing the golden leaf will be an option.

Getting seed to grow transplants in 2011 has been an interesting process for many growers. The big changes leave some wondering about the future of seed availability, or more importantly, the long-term stability of tobacco seed prices.

A recent announcement by GoldLeaf Seed left some wondering exactly what is going on in the tobacco seed business. GoldLeaf Seed, the leading provider of flue-cured tobacco seed to the U.S. domestic market, announced it will no longer be marketing varieties produced by F.W. Rickard Seed.

“F.W. Rickard varieties have been part of our catalog for many years” stated Marion Hawkins, III, vice-president of GoldLeaf, “but the growth of our own flue-cured varieties has largely replaced them.” GoldLeaf Seed is a private, family owned company based in Hartsville, S.C.

For almost two decades, GoldLeaf Seed has been the source for the majority of seed used by tobacco growers in the United States. GoldLeaf was formed from an acquisition of breeder seed and inventory from some of the oldest tobacco seed companies, including Northrup King, McNair Seed, and Coker’s Pedigreed Seed.

For example, GoldLeaf Seed produces NC 196, the leading variety in the United States, and other top varieties like NC 297, NC 72, and K 346.

F.W. Rickard Seed is a brand of Profigen, Inc., a company primarily based in Brazil, but wholly owned by Phillip Morris USA and the Altria Group. Rickard seed have been sold in the U.S. for many years, most recently by GolfLeaf.

The Altria Group recently acquired UST Inc. and its subsidiary the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company (USSTC). The transaction, valued at approximately $11.7 billion, added well-known moist smokeless tobacco brands Skoal and Copenhagen to Altria's portfolio.