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Tobacco may be on track to regain the top-earner spot among Wilson County’s agricultural crops this year, surpassing sweet potatoes, greenhouses and nurseries.
Growers have benefited from good weather, resulting in a high-quality leaf to offer buyers.
In 2016, greenhouses and nurseries earned nearly $48 million to take the top position, but a reorganization at Gardens Alive, formerly Zelenka, the largest nursery in the county, may mean sales could be lower while the business rebuilds. Sweet potatoes earned $44.3 million in 2016, but prices have been lower due to high numbers of potatoes on the market and lower demand.
Tobacco had $37 million in 2016 sales due in large part to less than optimum-quality leaf from poor weather conditions.
“It’s not been the heaviest tobacco crop that we have ever had, but the thing that has really been a blessing is it has been a good-quality crop,” said Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County. “That has helped the farmers with their grades and it’s really helped the buying companies with the growers producing leaf that they need and can use. That has been a real silver lining for the season.”
Harrell said the best picture of agricultural earnings will come at the end of the year when assessments are completed.
Harrell said he was confident that Gardens Alive “is going to rebound and continue to be a very important agricultural player in the county.”
“Sweet potatoes, the acreage is just under 10,000,” Harrell said. “I think the price of potatoes are down a little bit, so that might affect the sweet potato value this year, so certainly tobacco has the potential to move into the No. 1 slot.”
Weather really affects a lot of different variables with the tobacco plant.
“The combination of the right weather factors is what’s allowed us to have the best-quality tobacco this year,” Harrell said.
Wilson is in its 128th year selling tobacco.
Years ago, Wilson was known as the world’s largest tobacco market.
“We have since been surpassed by Zimbabwe in size and possibly Brazil,” Harrell said.
Then a couple of decades ago, Wilson adopted the moniker World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.
According to Harrell, Wilson can make that claim for several reasons.
“History is a big part of our reason that we are the hub of tobacco,” Harrell said. “I think it’s safe to say that we are the largest North American tobacco market in volume now, by far. I would say that there is not any tobacco market that comes anywhere close to us in North America in volume.
“Wilson is the hub of the tobacco producing area serving as the central location for flue production in eastern North Carolina,” Harrell said. “Wilson also has a long history of moving a lot of tobacco. Originally through the warehouse system and then changing to the direct market contracting. With that, many tobacco businesses were established here and have a presence in Wilson. Wilson also has adequate large warehouse space that can serve as tobacco receiving stations. As most industries have done, there has been consolidation. Wilson has often benefited from other tobacco markets closing and moving that business to Wilson. A specific example is last year JTI (Japan Tobacco International) received tobacco in Wilson and Kinston. This year, they made the decision to have one location and closed the Kinston location. So all of that volume was shifted to Wilson. All of these factors combined together are why Wilson serves as the ‘World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.’
“Prior to the tobacco buyout, a lot of communities had tobacco warehouses, and when we transitioned around the time of the tobacco buyout to direct marketing contracting, we saw growers contracting with leaf dealers or cigarette companies and that became more consolidated as opposed to a lot of warehouses in every little town. So as that consolidation moved forward, Wilson had a history of having a lot of warehouses, but we were able to have those contracting companies locate here, so over time, we have just continually had businesses come here to contract here,” Harrell said. “We had buildings that could accommodate businesses that they could lease, and others, like United Tobacco were located here in Wilson, and they built structures to handle tobacco. So over time, it’s just a combination that Wilson is a center for tobacco production. We have had the history of the leaf being brought here. And as we have moved forward, we have had a lot of new industry come and set up here in Wilson because it’s really a place where a lot of industry people come and have offices to satisfy the leaf needs that they have.”
“I’d say half of the flue-cured production in the United States in running through Wilson at some point,” said Mann Mullen, owner at Big M Tobacco in Wilson.
“All the major companies have buying centers here.,” said Tommy Swan, a manager at Big M Tobacco.
Major corporations doing business in Wilson include Japan Tobacco International, Alliance Once International, Universal Leaf, Hail and Cotton, China Tobacco, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, which recently purchased R.J. Reynolds.
“The United States Tobacco Growers Cooperative is certainly buying tobacco and can sell anywhere,” Harrell said.
According to Swan, the peak for tobacco this year will be about Oct.1.
“We’ll probably be swamped,” Swan said.
All varieties are coming to market.
“We’re getting lugs, cutters and leaf. We’re getting a little bit of everything now,” Swan said. “It’s good quality and quantity is up over previous years. It’s a good crop, but due to different weather situations in different areas, we are getting all styles of tobacco, all different varieties of tobacco, from six quality to first quality, colors from lemon to full orange. We’re getting everything.”
Harrell said he had heard of some of the better leaf could be purchased for as high as $2.35 per pound.
“When growers get good quality grades, the prices for those good quality grades are good. You are getting some real special grades when you get it that high,” Harrell said. “That will help the season if we get good quality grades.”