Adaptation for tobacco

Tobacco growers have seen some tremendous changes in just a few short years. On Oct. 22, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, ending the Depression-era federal quota system. That ushered in changes in tobacco production, particularly from the limited quota determined by government to a supply limited primarily by the tobacco companies. In addition, auction warehouses were soon replaced by buying stations. Contracts became the norm.

Key Points

• It has been five years since the reform of the tobacco quota system.

• The tobacco industry has seen tremendous change since.

• Grower Joey Holland believes mechanization may now level off.

An earlier progression from graded and tied bundles to tobacco leaves in piles progressed further to baled tobacco. That was difficult for some “old-timers” to take, even while recognizing the new ways’ streamlined efficiencies.

For a while, many who stayed in the business shook their heads disapprovingly. On the other hand, some growers like Joey Holland of Kenly, N.C., have adapted at every step — and say they like the changes.

“I think adjusting has been easy for me,” Holland says, “because, inevitably, a lot of the changes we have made have also made my workload easier. Obviously, tobacco is still a chore, from the time we first set it until we finish barning, but it is a lot easier to handle tobacco with an automatic primer. In fact, on this farm, by and large, we don’t handle tobacco by hand at all. ... It is a lot easier — and it is a lot easier to get labor to do it.”

Some things stay the same

On the wall above the desk of his Kenly office is a framed print of “gold leaf” in traditional tied bundles. Glancing up at the print, Holland expresses a tinge of appreciation for the tradition it represents. He notes his father and grandfather once marketed hand-tied tobacco bundles like those in the colorful print.

Joey recalls his father teaching him to cure tobacco in some of the earliest tobacco bulk barns on the market, “in the late 1980s or early 1970s.” His father taught him to cultivate tobacco, as well.

Many things have changed — but not everything.

“We still have to look after the tobacco just as we did then,” Holland says. “We still have to put the seed at the right depth into the ground.”

Holland obviously remembers those times fondly. But he mainly yearns, not for the “good ol’ days,” but for the “modern ways.”

“I feel the tobacco companies made growers do a lot of things that were unnecessary,” he says. “They had the same manufacturing process for tobacco that we have now; stemming the tobacco, shredding it, chopping it and putting it in a cigarette. They did that when it was tied into a pretty bundle. They do it to tobacco in a bale.

“For whatever reason, the buyers made them go through a lot of extra effort — probably because that is just the way they did it,” he adds. “But the integrity of our tobacco is just as good now as it was then, and the quality is just as good as it was then.”

A question of labor

The number of tobacco growers has dwindled as those who remain take on larger acreages with smaller profit margins. That has been made possible by mechanization, but Holland doubts the mechanization and consolidation will continue indefinitely.

There is a limit to how much tobacco one operation can look after, he says. Land availability and “just the sheer logistics of it” are limiting factors. So is labor. There is still a lot of work in tobacco. And growers still have the quality issues to contend with, which, he adds, are coming up with the companies more often than ever before.

“It makes sense that there is a certain level that each operator can get to, and once he passes that level, his yield and quality is going to start slipping,” Holland says. “Of course that level might be different for different growers. For some growers it might be 50 acres; for others it might be 2,000 acres. It depends on factors like management skills, land availability and so on.”

With the recent modernization he doesn’t think managing and packaging tobacco on the growers’ end will change much in the near future.

“I don’t see how it could get much simpler than it is now,” he says. “We can’t handle tobacco in any larger bales — we’re already putting it in 800-pound bales. I don’t think we can package our tobacco any better than we are packaging it now. I don’t think there are any simpler marketing strategies or any simpler ways to take tobacco to a market than there are now.”

Holland says the next changes to come are likely to be at the regulatory level or the manufacturing level. Growers are waiting to see what Food and Drug Administration demands might be. He says there are indications some tobacco companies may shift back to using independent buying agents to procure their leaf.

But whatever changes are required, tobacco farmers will implement them, he says. “The people that won’t change are going to have to go. It is the same way as it is with any other industry. Think about the way our phone systems have changed and our computer systems have changed over the last 10 to 15 years. People and companies that don’t change just get left by the wayside. That is the way it is.”


MECHANIZATION THE DRIVING FACTOR: Tobacco producers like Joey Holland of Kenly, N.C., have spent many years becoming as efficient as possible in terms of crop production. Holland says the biggest changes in the next few years are likely to be at the regulatory or manufacturing levels.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.