What’s in store for tobacco as it faces a new era, through the eyes of Franklin County farmers.
by Jonathan McNamara
First in a three-part series
LOUISBURG — Tobacco has helped shape the face of North Carolina since the Colonial period. However, with government restrictions and new changes in agriculture, the face of tobacco farming is evolving with the times.
But, has tobacco’s growth been stunted? Or does the crop have room to grow in 2013 and beyond?
Tobacco put North Carolina on the map long ago when it sat sandwiched between a agriculturally rich Virginia and the rice plantations of South Carolina.
“Tobacco is the backbone of North Carolina and Franklin County,” says Franklin County tobacco farmer Stephen Nelms.
Many counties, especially Franklin County were built around the crop, and two of the state largest cities formed as company towns: Durham, with the Bull Durham Tobacco Company and Duke and Sons Tobacco Company, and Winston-Salem, with the R.J. Reynolds tobacco Company.
Tobacco farming and the state has changed significantly since the first explorers discovered the plant and its use by Native Americans and introduced it to Europe in the 1500s.
Tobacco farming initially went through small changes as far as how planting, priming, and utilizing the filed rotation or staggering methods to best use only the richest soil to produce high quality tobacco. However, innovation hit a high point in tobacco farming by accident. Tobacco grown in Virginia and other parts of the U.S. was originally darker and more heavily flavored.
In the early 1800s, demand for a lighter tobacco grew, and farmers experimented with growing a new gold-leaf variety.
Captain Abisha Slade in Caswell County tried planting the lighter variety as his land was too sandy for much else.
During the fire-curing process that was widely used at that time, a slave of Slades by the name of Stephen, tried to restart a fire with charcoal. The quick, intense heat turned the tobacco leaves yellow and produced a mellow flavor.
Slade then developed the process to use less fertile land to grow what was called brightleaf tobacco and cure it with charcoal fires.
Today, there are just a handful of counties that grow other varieties of tobacco, but flue-cured is still to this day, the most popular and profitable tobacco in the state and Franklin County. With the production of 38.2 million pounds by the state, and approximately 94.7 million pounds in Franklin County, in 2012. At roughly $2 a pound (in 2012), according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), tobacco still holds the title for the leading industry in North Carolina today.
Franklin County tobacco farmer Steve Mitchell has operated a 190-acre farm for 40 years and has seen his share of changes from the expansion of high tech equipment to people helping with the farming.
“When the John Deere serviceman comes to the farm to fix one of my tractors he usually brings his laptop and leaves the toolbox in the truck,” Mitchell said.
With the seeming lack of local residents willing to take on the grueling, manual labor of tobacco farming employing farm hands has changed, too. Mitchell has two full time and 23 part time workers. He is an active participant in the H-2A visa program which allows qualifying U.S. employers to hire seasonal foreign nationals.
Farms that want to use immigrant workers are mandated by the government to use the H-2A program. This aids the farmers by being able to employ seasoned workers with experience to make the tobacco growing season a success. Nelms’ son spent five years learning how to properly cure tobacco. "It’s an art,” Nelms said.
The farms visited for this series, a 26-acre small farm to a 290-acre operation, all had two things in common: They get by on as little as needed, some using tractors or other farm equipment passed on through generations; They all were optimistic about tobacco in Franklin County and in North Carolina as a whole.
In spite of robust anti-smoking campaigns big tobacco is still big business and money is made every year.
The big markets of today are overseas, in China and the Middle East. Although these countries grow their own tobacco, the soil and climate conditions in the U.S. and North Carolina in particular provide quality that can’t be found elsewhere.
Next week we will delve deeper into what this could mean for Franklin County tobacco farms, how the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, more commonly known as the buy-out, has and will continue to change the face of tobacco farming and clear up some misconceptions.