The floor at Big M Warehouse (above) in Wilson, N.C., averaged $2.25 a pound at its sale last Wednesday, and a good sale is expected again today. The interested participants are (from left) farmer David Askew of Elm City, N.C.; buyer Michael Bailey of Baileys Cigarettes; warehouse owner Mann Mullen; auctioneer Greg Goins and buyer Brent Tilley of Vaughn Tobacco. Ticket marker Greg Ray is at far right.
How much have tobacco farmers produced? That was still a question mark as flue-cured growers began to bring in the last of the crop and burley growers began to think about deliveries. Usually by this time of the season I can get a consensus of opinion on production from informed sources, but not this year. Let me provide three opinions for now:
- Flue-cured: A leaf dealer whose opinion I have learned to respect tells me that he expects no more than 385 million pounds of flue-cured, while a state specialist who works as hard as anyone on production estimates says he expects 405 million pounds. USDA projected 439.2 million pounds in its September crop report.
- Burley: A Kentucky farmer-warehouseman whom I have also always found extremely credible says if everything goes well for the next month, burley growers might possibly produce 202 million pounds. He doesn't think any more is possible. If the weather doesn't cooperate, it might be more like 195 million pounds. USDA projected 201.7 million pounds in its September crop report.
There should be enough U.S. tobacco to meet at least the minimum requirements of operation for cigarette manufacturers, who after all have considerable experience with short American crops (see comments by Kirk Wayne below). But there seems to be no large supply of uncommitted "flavor" flue-cured or burley anywhere in the world at this time, so we can expect vigorous buying right up to the last delivery by anyone who needs U.S. leaf. Brazil and Zimbabwe will sell out--if they haven't already--of any flavor tobacco they have, as will probably Zambia and Argentina. Manufacturers may contract for more from Brazil's next crop, which will begin arriving at market at the beginning of next year. So my feeling is that the manufacturers will lean on their inventories, pick up a few extra pounds from our competitors, and see if the Americans can't bounce back in 2014. All this suggests to me that manufacturers will be hungry when contracting for our 2014 crop starts, and a good price seems a certainty.
The growing season is definitely not over. Much of the Burley Belt and the flue-cured Old Belt (Virginia and western North Carolina) still have a way to go before harvest ends. By all accounts, the Old Belt has a good top crop and may make up for some of the lightness in the East. In the Bluegrass of Kentucky, about 30 percent of the crop has not been harvested, a lot for this time of year. An early frost in any of those areas could be a real problem. Good news: Curing weather in the Bluegrass has been very good with heavy dews and fogs but not much rain. Good quality is likely.
The Eastern N.C. crop was bright: China bright, said one leaf dealer at the auction in Wilson last week. American flue-cured growers may have unintentionally produced a crop that has more appeal than usual to Chinese buyers. Because of the precipitation and interruption of nitrogen delivery, an unusual proportion of the U.S. crop is a lemony style that the Chinese will probably like. In that market, the sign of quality in a cigarette is golden yellow tobacco visible from the end.
Whatever we produce, the world cigarette industry may not be seriously affected by our shortfall. "Most manufacturers are aware that there can be shifts in availability of leaf in any country and any year," says Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates. "It is never entirely unanticipated. It gives them some concerns but most are prepared to accommodate this situation." Wayne, by the way, is cheered by the good quality of this year's crop. "That will help our exports even if we do come up short."
Were there enough new curing barns? By my very rough count, based on conversations with barn manufacturers, it appears that perhaps 400 new flue barns were sold for use during the 2013 season. I think the vendors were Long, World Tobacco, Carolina Tobacco Services, Taylor and Tytun, although I am not sure all made sales in 2013.
More barns will be needed next year. "It is common knowledge that the current U.S. bulk-tobacco curing barn inventory includes many old wood-frame barns that are deteriorated," says Bob Pope, general manager of Long Tobacco Barn Company LLC. "Though still functioning, they lack reliability and are expensive to operate and maintain." Pope says his firm's research indicates that about 19,200 barns may have been used in 2013, and that at least half of them will require replacement in the near future.
The demand is definitely being felt by manufacturers. Ron Taylor of Taylor Mfg. in Elizabethton, N.C., says he is already taking orders for delivery next season. "Farmers are gaining confidence in their ability to produce a crop that has some demand." Eric Scaion, president of World Tobacco in Wilson, N.C., says his company sold approximately 100 flue-cured barns in 2013. "At this time, we are making plans to double our barn sales for 2014. We have already begun producing barns for 2014, and are building two a day."
Good market for mechanical harvesters too. Tom Pharr of MarCo Manufacturing, Bennettsville, S.C. His company sells the Powell 6360 multipass unit. "We had good success with it this season," he says. There was also some interest in the company's Powell Burley Harvester. "We sold two, which is good," Pharr says. Both went to farms in Kentucky.
Transplanter technology improving: With the Trium transplanter made by the Italian company Checchi & Magli (C&M), you might get by with just one man walking behind your transplanter instead of three or four. The Trium also features ease in making the adjustments needed when you're changing soil conditions and/or plant size, says Mark Jones of Benchmark Buildings and Irrigation of Murfreesboro, N.C. It also has a unique "double kick" design that sets the plant straight up.
FARMERS TOBACCO WAREHOUSE
209 Harding St., Danville, Ky.
Full-service burley warehouse
Jerry Rankin, Owner
BIG M TOBACCO WAREHOUSE1723 Goldsboro St. SW, Wilson, N.C.,
in the old Liberty Warehouse
We will hold both sealed bid auctions
and live auctions.
HONEST AND TRUSTWORTHY
For more information, contact:
--Mann Mullen at 919-496-9033
--Greg Ray at 252-799-6061 or
--the warehouse at 252-206-1447.