At the 2011 Tobacco Day held at the Johnston County Extension Center, Craig West, President of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina spoke on changes in tobacco farming and the new options in crop selection since the buyout in 2004:
West: These growers are facing challenges that we haven't faced and opportunities that we haven't had in a long time. Tobacco has sort of been the hub of the wheel in our operations and it isn't anymore. It is just sort of an equal part with other things. Growers are becoming more increasingly aware there are other options besides tobacco and it's never been that way before in my lifetime. Tobacco has always been the key, main commodity in Eastern North Carolina and it's certainly not that way now.
SFN: Do you see one crop in particular that people are paying closer attention to than another?
West: Right now, probably cotton. Cotton is the big thing. Certainly, the prices - I won't say where they are now - but who knows? While no other crop, I don't think, still will do an acre to acre comparison with tobacco, other crops are so much easier, you know, 'cause if it's three to one it is still an advantage.
SFN: And there's always the double crop opportunities, too, that you don't have with tobacco.
West: Exactly, exactly with soybeans... This past year had an excellent wheat crop, good prices, excellent soybean crop... So you're right, all those things contribute. With the increase in labor costs, the difficulty finding labor, and all the other regulations and things that are associated with labor. These other crops require a lot less labor than tobacco.
SFN: Speaking of the labor issue, there just doesn't seem to be a resolution anywhere in sight...
West: No, I don't think so. I certainly don't have an answer. I know the H2A program is a wonderful thing. North Carolina is by far the largest user of that in the nation but it's expensive. With other costs increases, we can't stand for that to continue to increase like it has.
SFN: Do you see farmers getting out of tobacco because of the regulations that just continue to go on and on and on?
West: Sure. I think that's a real possibility. Who knows right now? FDA... Who knows what that's going to mean... but all of I think has come together. It's come together sort of as a perfect storm. You know, with lower profits, certainly if it becomes more burdensome on top of that, then it makes it less attractive all the time.
SFN: Are your tobacco acreas the same as what they have been?
West: They are for now. We've set up infrastructure, you know, that we've had for awhile. There's still some profit in tobacco now, no doubt. I think a lot of people, including us, we possibly may cut back some on acres; get back to where our equipment will handle it a little better but we're not ready to throw in the towel, yet.
SFN: What kind of situation did hurricane Irene leave you in?
West: It was pretty devestating in our area. From our area east, it was pretty bad. We probably harvested about 40 percent of our crop before the storm and then after that - about a week after that - it was all gone.
SFN: Did you have leaf in the barn when the power went out? Or did you lose power?
West: No, we were very fortunate believe it or not, we never lost power. We did have some in the barns but we didn't lose power in our area.
SFN: Well, speaking of hurricane Irene, production was down anywhere - depends on who you listened to - anywhere from 30 to 40 percent, so most contracts went unfulfilled.
West: Exactly. And time will tell what that means. You would think that with the 2010 crop that wasn't very attractive and the 2011, hopefully there'll be even more, for increases.
SFN: Do you see tobacco companies backing away from a producer because they didn't fulfill their contract?
West: I hope not. Not in the scenarios we've had the last two years -- certainly the producer had no control over that. I do think you've seen it in the past, and will continue to see it, if you have producers who consistently don't deliver on contracts, sure that will effect their contracts.
Growers keep you chin up and let's see what happens. Contracts are supposedly coming out earlier which is a great thing. Companies did listen to that. We need them in the first part of December to make plans. Hopefully, prices will be up and we'll have a good year.