Growing tobacco is not for those with an aversion to work.
There is a lot more sweat in producing tobacco than most any other crop, said J. Michael Moore, a University of Georgia professor and cooperative extension agronomist who specializes in tobacco.
Despite the labor-intensiveness of the crop, farmers planted more tobacco this year than they have in each of the past four years.
Georgia farmers planted an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 acres of tobacco this year, Moore said. Thats about the same as 2009 when they planted 14,840 acres. But interest in growing the crop waned last year with a scant 9,611 acres, according to the Georgia Tobacco Outlook and Budgets report, which Moore co-authored.
The most common tobacco grown in Georgia is flue-cured tobacco, used in making cigarettes.
Daniel Johnson of Alma has been growing tobacco for 30 years, and he admits its not for everyone.
I dont see new growers jumping into it, because there is no guarantee, he said. You have to have a lot of equipment, and its a lot of expensive equipment. ... You dont go out and buy new stuff. Ive been in a survival mode for 10 years.
But Johnson said he has too much invested in tobacco production not to plant it.
Well have to take the ups and downs, he said. I wish we could make a living on cotton and peanuts, but since were set up for (tobacco), well stay with it.
There are several reasons for the increased acreage in Georgia. Demand increased after a 2010 hurricane took out a third of the tobacco crop in North Carolina -- the No. 1 flue-cured state in the country.
Then the next year, we had an outstanding crop, the best crop in Georgia weve ever had, Moore said. We just had too few acres, but the yield per acre was the best Ive ever seen.
Some Georgia growers were inspired to plant more tobacco.
But just like almost everyone else in the agriculture industry, tobacco farmers were hit hard by Mother Nature this spring.
So this year comes along and not only in Georgia, but all the way up through South Carolina and North Carolina, the crop is hurt by excessive rainfall, Moore said. North Carolina is reporting about a 25 percent shortfall, South Carolina is at least that much, and then Georgia is probably going to be in the neighborhood of a 40 to 45 percent shortfall.
Demand from the Asian market also has buoyed the number of tobacco acres in Georgia.
China grows half of the tobacco in the world, but they have been steadily increasing the amount of tobacco they have been buying from the United States, Moore said. They recognize the quality characteristics associated with U.S. tobacco, and with those purchases they have been able to increase the quality of their manufactured products.
I always say (American tobacco is) the spice that other countries use to flavor up the tobacco they produce, he said. Thats particularly true in Asia.
Fred Wetherington, a third-generation tobacco farmer from Hahira, just north of Valdosta, grows about 500 acres of tobacco on his familys farm.
Weve seen the first bump in the last few years mainly due to the Asian influence, Wetherington said. They are planting more corn and wheat trying to get more diversified and dont have as much land for tobacco.
Big change to industry
One of the biggest changes in the tobacco industry occurred in 2004 when Congress passed the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, most commonly known as the tobacco quota buyout. The legislation deregulated the tobacco industry and completely changed the way tobacco was produced and sold in the U.S.
Under the old federal tobacco program, government-issued quotas were attached to land that limited the amount of tobacco that could be marketed each year, according to the Center for Tobacco Grower Research. Basically, quota holders agreed to limit the amount of tobacco marketed in exchange for price support. The program was funded by assessments paid by producers and companies according to the number of pounds marketed and purchased.
All tobacco farmers have received payments from the buyout for nearly a decade, and the last payments will be made in January.
There was no choice, Moore said. Everybody got funding to compensate for (discontinuing) the acreage allotment system, and then we went to an open market system.
Now all tobacco farmers contract -- usually one year at a time -- with tobacco companies for a certain amount of tobacco. Some farmers have contracts with more than one company.
The buyout was an opportune time for many of our older growers with older equipment to take retirement, Moore said. Those that didnt have family members to pick up the farm sold their equipment and either sought another agricultural venture or retired. So, we had quite a bit of change in the demographics of our growers. We lost a significant number.
Georgia is down to about 150 growers compared to more than 1,000 growers about 25 years ago, he said. However, the size of farms has gotten much larger.
When Johnson, the Alma farmer, got started 30 years ago, he planted 5 acres of tobacco. This year he planted 450 acres.
Its the most Ive grown, said Johnson, who used to plant between 350 and 400 acres.
Wetherington said when the contract system first began, he was a little worried about it, but Im a lot more comfortable with it now.
It was very expensive to make the transition ... so it was a painful period, he said. We were heavily invested in the tobacco business and had a lot of specialized equipment and felt we had to keep farming tobacco because we couldnt do anything else with all the equipment.
Both Johnson and Wetherington use equipment to harvest tobacco, which used to be done by hand.
When labor became so expensive, we sort of transitioned into mechanical, Wetherington said. Of course today, we try not to use any hand labor during harvesting now.
Even with all the issues involved with tobacco, Georgia farmers are likely to continue growing it, Moore said.
Tobacco is here to stay, he said. It is at a level, I hope, that will be consistent for the next half dozen years or better. I think thats why we see growers interested in getting in production and others continuing to stay in production.
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.