Tobacco markets open late

Sales start slowly after weather-delayed harvest

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A baler door lifted and a golden cube of pressed tobacco dropped onto the floor Monday at Bass Farms near Lucama.

The 735-pound bale was one of 36 to be carried Tuesday to Philip Morris, a major buyer of tobacco, in Wilson.

Tobacco markets opened later than usual this week because this year’s crop is about a month behind schedule.

Universal Leaf is scheduled to open today, accepting its first loads of contract tobacco.

According to Rick Smith of Independent Leaf Co., about 92 percent of the tobacco grown in Wilson will be bought through contracts with major buyers.

The remainder will be sold in nontraditional, non-contract markets.

Mann Mullen of Wilson-based Big M Tobacco Inc. runs one of the three main nontraditional markets in Wilson. Big M has its first sealed bid auction today.

Buyers will start arriving around 9 a.m. and the auction should last until 3 p.m.

“We’ve got about 75,000 pounds of tobacco available for sale in here,” Mullen said.

“We bring the tobacco in, line it up, weigh it, then we lot it out according to quality, stalk position and then the buyers come in and they buy according to lots,” Mullen said. “After we compile all of the bids, then we notify the farmer of the price that was offered for his crop of tobacco and then he has the right to say yes or no. If he accepts the bid, then we notify the buyer that he won the bid and we pay the farmer and the buyer pays us.”

Mullen said sales always start out slow this time of year.

“It’s still early,” Mullen said.“Farmers are skittish not knowing what the contracts are going to be and the prices are going to be.”

Mullen said it isn’t clear what prices are going to be like yet..

“I am hoping there is going to be a demand for some. We hope that it starts out well, but right now we are not exactly sure,” Mullen said.

“The tobacco we’ve got on the floor is very good quality,” Mullen said.

Smith said the tobacco he’s seen looks good considering what it’s been through.

“It’s just a late crop,” Smith said. “This crop has been late since day one. We’re three weeks behind schedule easily.”

Chris Bass, owner of Bass Farms, said all 225 acres of tobacco the farm grows is contract leaf.

“We’re probably a month later than normal. Normally between the Fourth of July and the middle of July we’re putting in tobacco and we didn’t start until the end of July and then we stopped about three weeks because it was so dry,” Bass said. “We started back last week. The early tobacco was dry-weather tobacco. It’s kind of tough-looking. It’s got some rain and got some water in it now and it’s filling out. Hopefully it’s going to be all right from here on.”

The most valuable leaf on the upper part of the stalk has yet to be harvested.

David Blalock, owner of Blalock Farms in Lucama, said his tobacco is also a month behind harvesting-wise.

Blalock contracts with Japan Tobacco International, Universal Leaf and Alliance One. All three buy tobacco in Wilson.

The farm is growing 170 acres of tobacco this year.

“We’ve got a big crop in the field right now, but the problem is it’s turned green on us. All of this water has delayed the maturity of it,” Blalock said. “We’re definitely going to run into some timing issues. It just depends on how kind Mother Nature is to us between now and the end of the season and how fast we are able to save the crop that’s in the field.”

“What’s going to happen is it’s all going to get ready at one time,” Blalock said. “That’s what we’re afraid of. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on us to house it.”

Blalock said his worry is that all of the tobacco is going to need to be harvested at one time.

“That’s what’s going to give us problems,” Blalock said. “We’re not going to be able to house it as fast as it ripens whenever it does decide to change.”

According to Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, growers planted 8,828 acres of tobacco in 2018, which is down from the 9,818 planted in 2017.

“I am sure that the growers are ready to sell some tobacco so they can have some income coming in,” Harrell said.

Harrell said Mother Nature has continually beat the farmers back this year.

“Normally we would be kind of wide open selling tobacco by this time, but the growers probably have just a little bit of tobacco to sell and they are just kind of gearing up to get into full swing for selling tobacco.”

Flue-cured tobacco brought in $49,215,769 in 2017, making the golden leaf Wilson County’s highest gross revenue crop.

“Even with the struggles and the trials that we have to crop, it will be the highest gross revenue earning crop for the county in 2018,” Harrell said.

“We hope for a prosperous year for the farmer and for us,” Mullen said.