First Posted: 1/15/2009
Mark Locklear, Staff writer
LUMBERTON - The opening of the tobacco markets in Southeastern North Carolina last week went virtually unnoticed in Robeson County. Aside the from the contract sales at S&P Tobacco Marketing in Lumberton, the next closest receiving station is 100 miles away in Mullins, S.C.
The Lumberton warehouse was converted into a receiving station years ago after Congress approved a $10 billion buyout of the federal tobacco quota system. The buyout dismantled the tobacco price-support and quota program that had existed since the 1930s. Many farmers turned to other alternative crops or got out of the farming business altogether.
There were 5,158 acres of tobacco planted in Robeson County this year, about a third of what was being planted in the mid-1990s. That tobacco will generate about $20 million of income, which is also about a third of the tobacco revenue produced just more than a decade ago.
For farmers like Gene Ransom who stayed, every year is now a gamble. Under the quota program, farmers owned the right to grow an allotment of tobacco each year, based on a quota set by the federal government. They were guaranteed a fair price when they took their crop to the auction houses. Now Ransom and others deal directly with the large cigarette companies.
Ransom, who works for Pates Supply in Pembroke, was among the 26 growers who sold their leaf at S&P Tobacco Marketing on opening day on Wednesday.
“We sold 32 bales and there's about 750 pounds per bale,” Ransom said. “It sold between $1.20 and $1.35 per pound. But that was just the bottom of the crop. The prices will go higher.”
A severe drought - Robeson County is about 60 percent below normal rainfall levels for this time of the year - has farmers skeptical about this season's crop.
“The quality just ain't in the tobacco this year,” Ransom said. “Some of it is bad because of the weather. It's thin and (the buyers) don't like it too thin.”
Tobacco was planted in April.
“It started off being a good crop but it looks poor now because of the weather,” said Giles Floyd, the county’s Farm Service Agency director. “This one guy told me it took him 12 acres to get one barn of tobacco.”
Tom Stephenson, manager of S&P, said there was no real fanfare on opening day compared with 20 years ago. There was no ceremony or visit from the state agricultural commissioner, as has been traditional. Nor was there the chant of an auctioneer.
“It was more or less like a training day for our employees,” Stephenson said. “Although there is less fanfare, it's always a welcome sight when the farmers come into the facility. This is a culmination of a lot of hard work and what they do still means a lot to Robeson County.”
Stephenson called this year's crop “spotty” and “dry.”
“It's been a dry season, but I think the tobacco can hold out,” he said. “Water is critical though. We need some good rain to help the growers.”
Ransom said in the past he has cropped tobacco into the first week of October, but doesn't expect that to happen this year.
“It looks like it will be a short crop,” Ransom said. “Some farmers are saying they have a half of crop. We've got a little more water in this area (Pembroke). We are suffering but not as bad as other farmers are.”
Ransom said he's not sure how long he can afford to grow tobacco.
“It's a big investment,” he said. “For what you put into it and what you get out, it may not be worth it. Plus, you could lose it overnight, especially with heat like this.”