Workers gather leaf in a flue-cured field on Marty Adams' farm east of Raleigh. Adams hoped to wrap up this long harvest season by October 15.
The size of the flue-cured crop in eastern North Carolina will apparently remain a mystery right up until end of harvest. In recent weeks, there continued to be reports of weather-related losses:
Marty Adams and his son M.J. grow flue-cured in the Knightdale area just east of Raleigh. At mid season, they had what was clearly their best crop ever. But the rain turned it yellow and washed out much of the weight. Harvest was considerably delayed; Marty expects to finish around the 15th, which is about when he starts looking for first frost. And the ground stayed so wet that he had to park his mechanical harvester and finish the crop by hand.
Kevin Gardner of Macclesfield, N.C., said his family had finished harvest on his farm around October 1. It was a big crop in the field, but the rain washed it out and it didn't weigh good. "I think our yield will be about average," says Gardner.
Harvest ended in mid September for Johnny McLawhorn of Hookerton, N.C. "It was just a fair crop [thanks to the rain]," he says. "We produced about 85 percent of what we expected."
Even if eastern N.C. doesn't produce an enormous crop, my sources say there is already more flue-cured out there than the market wants. The Old Belt seems headed for a big crop too, but it is even later than the Eastern Belt, and much of the latest leaf may have to be abandoned. So how much flue-cured will be produced? The leaf man I respect most in this business told me off the record last Friday that he thinks now that flue-cured production of 525 million pounds is probably a reasonable projection. On the demand side, he thinks that 490 million pounds will be as much as contracting manufacturers will take. "The remaining 35 million or so pounds will probably be taken to auctions," he says.
Sales will continue at least through November 15 at the Big M auction warehouse in Wilson, N.C, says owner Mann Mullen. In recent sales, lugs at his auctions have been bringing in the $1 to $1.10 a pound range, cutters $1.40 to $1.50 a pound and leaf $1.70 to $1.80 a pound. "Most have been satisfied with what they are getting," Mullen says.
Auctions in the Old Beltwill likely continue at Rural Hall, N.C., till the end of November, if not later, says Old Belt Ware-house owner Dennis White. Prices have improved substantially since the opening sale. "We sold 425,000 pounds last Tuesday at an average of about $1.32 a pound," says White. "Far fewer bids were rejected than at our opening sale." Very little leaf grade tobacco has been brought to the warehouse yet. What has come in sold in the $1.80 a pound range. Cutters have brought $1.60.
Not halfway through the auction season? "I don't think we are a third done," White says. "A lot of the Piedmont crop has still been pulled just once. It is big tobacco and just now starting to 'break.' If the frost holds off, it will be a very big crop."
A full-scale burley auction in the Old Belt: White says he has gotten many calls from burley growers seeking an auction. "If the interest stands up, I plan to start selling burley the third or fourth week of October," he says. "I will do it on the same days that I sell flue-cured." But not at the same time. He will sell the flue-cured, then sell the burley, he says.
Editor's note: As you probably noticed, I managed to commit not one but two typographical errors in one sentence in my September II issue, which had the effect of making my source seem uncharacteristically indecisive. Here is how it should have read--"A lot of flue-cured is deteriorating on the stalk in Eastern N.C., says Matthew Vann, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist, who continues to think that the barn-busting crop predicted six weeks ago is unlikely to occur."
Burley cut and curing: Tim Ware of Belwood, N.C., had cut all his burley around September 1. It is curing now and looks like a better crop than last year, he says. Ware farms near the point where the N.C. mountains end and the N.C. Piedmont begins, and he didn't get excess rain at any timeduring the growing season. In fact, he had a dry spell after he planted in mid May and is glad now he irrigated twice in that period. "I think the irrigation really helped get it over the hump." Ware got into burley after deregulation. He cures in outdoor curing structures even though he has some barn space that he could use. "I find it more labor efficient to use the outdoor structures," he says.
Harvest nearly over in Tennessee: At least 80 percent and probably more than 90 percent of the burley crop has been cut in Tennessee, says Extension specialist Eric Walker. "It might have been farther along except for some labor problems we had, especially in the eastern part of the state." Once the season passed the mid point, there weren't many problems. He doesn't have a production estimate yet but the state yield should be at least average.
Grower associations disavow child labor: Two organizations of tobacco farmers have recently taken a stand against the hiring of non-family youngsters to work tobacco, which has become quite a controversial issue of late. But it is a non-issue to most flue-cured growers today, said Tim Yarbrough, farmer president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina (TGANC). "The modern tobacco operations in our state today find it difficult to rely on such labor anyway. The use of more mechanization and extended growing season means there is increasingly less for kids to do like there was 25 years ago." Resolutions of TGANC and the Council for Burley Tobacco follow (excerpted).
What the North Carolinians resolved: While we do not believe that tobacco fields are inherently unsafe for qualified persons who receive proper training and personal protective equipment, we recognize that there are particular risks associated with working in tobacco. Accordingly, the TGANC adopts the following policy:
TGANC does not condone the use of child labor.
Tobacco growers and farm labor contractors should not employ workers younger than 16 years of age for work in tobacco, even with parental permission and including instances where the parent's request the work for them.
Tobacco growers and farm labor contractors should be cautious about employing 16- and 17-year-old workers in tobacco even though the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act allows it. If growers elect to employ 16- and 17-year-olds, it is encouraged that the employee provide express written parental permission. The farmer must provide appropriate safety training and personal protective equipment to perform only non-hazardous tasks.
Children of the family farm represent a unique circumstance in regards to child labor. Their engagement or related activities in a family farming perspective is a lifestyle for them as opposed to a vocation. Passing down strong agricultural values to the next generation is a key to ensuring productive and successful farms for the future. Therefore, this policy does not apply to members of a grower's family who work or otherwise perform various tasks on their farms because of direct and specific parental supervision.
What the Council for Burley Tobacco resolved:
We do not condone the hiring of anyone under the age of 16 for work in tobacco anywhere in the world.
Burley farmers in the United States understand the dangers burley production jobs pose to children and [believe] the incidence of children working in tobacco production is low in this country."