Joey Kirby, left, of Bass Farms, and other workers, sort through tobacco after it has been cured in a barn near Lucama on Monday. Photo taken Monday, July 31, 2017. Drew C. Wilson | Times
By Drew C. Wilson
Times Staff Writer
Tobacco markets open next week in Wilson County.
“It’s when the money starts flowing,” said Rick Smith of Independent Leaf Tobacco Co.
Opening day used to have plenty of pomp and circumstance.
“It used to be the governor would come down, the commissioner of agriculture, the senators would come for opening day ceremonies, the board of trade, the mayor, the town council, the county commissioners, everybody would be out there for opening day,” Smith said. “It goes back as long as there has been tobacco in Wilson County.
“Historically, Wilson has been one of the leading counties and is still the leading market as far as the selling of the tobacco,” he said. “Even at contract, Wilson is by far the biggest market for selling tobacco. Of course, all of it doesn’t come to Wilson County, but by far it’s the most important town and county in North Carolina when it comes to tobacco. There’s no doubt about it.”
According to Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, the week of Aug. 7 will be the big week, with everybody else opening by the week of Aug. 14.
Tobacco acreage reported in Wilson County currently is 9,817, up from 8,521 acres in 2016.
According to Harrell, there are nine contract receiving stations, two auction warehouses for direct sales and multiple other businesses that buy tobacco in Wilson County.
“We are entering our 128th season of selling tobacco in Wilson and just about every major manufacturer is doing business here, and if they are not doing business here directly, they are going to be doing it indirectly,” Harrell said. “The Wilson tobacco market has approximately one-third of the entire flue-cured tobacco grown in the United States sold here.”
The opening of the tobacco market is a very important time for Wilson County, Harrell said.
“Tobacco is still a very important commodity in the county. It’s one of the tops in the county for farmers in income,” Harrell said. “The farmers have had basically all of their expense in the crop with no money coming in, and they are ready to move some of this tobacco that they have got in storage, and they are ready to get a check to come in so they can pay some bills. This is really one of the more stressful times that I have run into on the farms because growers have been so long without any income coming in and the farmers are really ready to sell some tobacco to help their cash flow.”
“Yeah, it’s still a big day,” said farmer Joey Kirby as he picked out the less-than-perfect leaves from a rolling sea of golden-colored tobacco being processed at Bass Farms in Lucama on Monday.
The leaves had been curing in the barn for nine days.
“We’ve got in an order, and we’re taking it out,” Kirby said. “We’re pulling out green leaves or dark leaves trying to make it look pretty. We’re just trying to make an end result to where it will look as best as possible.”
Kirby looks forward to taking it to market in the next week or two.
“Most of the time you have about run out of money and you need to sell your crop to keep operating,” Kirby said.
He has invested in 192 acres of the cash crop this year and is hoping to have a better year than the 2016 crop, which he described as “terrible.”
This year got off to a wet start, which led to concerns over the spread of the destructive disease target spot.
Drier weather meant the disease didn’t spread and the crop was able to recover.
“It’s looking a lot better, but you won’t ever know until the end gets here,” said Kirby.“For the most part, it looks pretty good.”
LOOKING TO OPENING
Mann Mullen, owner of Big M. Tobacco, LLC, likely the largest market as far as the sealed bid auction in Wilson, looks forward to opening day.
“I hope it’s busy buzzing with buyers, farmers and everybody’s got a smile on their face,” Mullen said. “That’s what I hope.”
Mullen started raising tobacco in 1979 at the age of 17.
“Prior to that I farmed with my father. I got into the warehouse business in 1990,” Mullen said.
Mullen runs his business out of the old Liberty Warehouse at the corner of Goldsboro Street and Ward Boulevard.
Mullen left the fading Liberty sign on the front of the building since so many people in town identified with its location and its history. The building was built in 1948.
“Everyone is still affected by tobacco in one way or another by tax dollars, employment, whatever, but they don’t realize it as much now,” Mullen said. “Not as many people are involved in agriculture, specifically in tobacco production. It’s like anything, you just kind of forget about your heritage and all the people retire and the younger generation gets a job and moves to Raleigh, and they don’t care about things like that anymore. But it still is important. It’s still exciting to me on that opening day, and I wish that people would go back to that and they won’t, but it’s still exciting opening day and it gives everybody butterflies, even the people that have been doing it for 50 years. It has an effect on you.”
“Good Lord, it’s very important,” Smith said. “The incomes the farmers will start getting will be spent many times over in Wilson County. It’s very important for the economy. It’s probably the most important day of the year, economy-wise.”
Harrell said the tobacco crop is looking better than last year but still was heavily affected by weather this year.
It has been a case of too much rain or not enough rain.
“The crop has been kind of all over the board in the way it looks,” Harrell said. “There are some places in the county that the tobacco looks really good and other places in the county that either it had too much rain or too little rain, and the tobacco is just not done as well. Overall, I would kind of just sum this crop up as an OK crop. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s just kind of OK.”
“It’s still a bit early,” Smith said. “There’s still another 30 days in this growing season, but right now the crops looks very good, a little bit of disease around ... a little bit of drought west of us, but all in all, the crop looks pretty good, it really does.”