Which way to turn for more tobacco?
For decades farmers have raised traditional tobacco, but for the last few years profit margins have been tight. So, many conventional tobacco growers are fast turning to some other crops for the higher profit margins. Two of those crops are organic tobacco and traditional soybeans.
Many are changing over fast, but the change is not always as fast as some would like. A huge obstacle has prevented at least one farmer from expanding his organic operation.
In 2012, Doug Lacks of Red Oak, Va., added a few more pounds of organic tobacco to his operation, but this is not near the amount he would like to expand.
“The only problem with the organic is finding the land,” he says. “The land has to qualify for it. In other words, it’s supposed to be idle for three years of tobacco or anything that was supposed to have been on it. After three years, you can work it in organic.”
Some of his organic crop is as much as eight miles away from his home because he can’t find any land closer to plant the organic tobacco on.
• Tobacco grower searches for more land to grow organic tobacco.
• Land must be idle for three years before planting organic.
• Soybeans have become so competitive that they take up most land.
“What has hurt us as much as anything is that people have really, really gone to soybeans,” Lacks says. “They have rented every place they can find for soybeans because the prices have gone up so high the last year or so. That’s why I’m eight miles away on some of my land. You just can’t find any available for rent here.”
Despite the drawback, Lacks believes seeking out more land is worth it for the price and premium per pound that he receives for growing organic tobacco. “I like the organic because of the money,” he says. “It’s practically double the money compared to conventional.
“With the PRC [Purity Residue Clean] and organic, at the end of the season they send you a dividend if you pass your chemical test,” Lacks explains. “They test every bale to see that you did not use chemicals that you’re not supposed to use. If it does not show up with any illegal chemicals or anything in it, they send you a premium check. With the PRC, it’s 25 cents per pound. On organic, if you carry a load of tobacco down there, you get $1.80 per pound for that load; and if you pass your tests in December, they’ll send you another $1.80 per pound.”
That’s far better than what conventional growers receive. If the buyers pay $1.80 per pound, that’s all they are paid, he says.
Lacks has been raising organic tobacco for four years. In 2012, he will grow about 15 acres of organic and about 25 acres of PRC tobacco for Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., which is owned by Reynolds American. About four years ago, he became involved in raising organic and PRC tobaccos when a tobacco representative that he sells with mentioned they had organic and PRC programs. That representative talked Lacks into raising the crops.
His reasoning for raising the organic and PRC was simple: Earn more money. “Well, if it wasn’t for the money, I wouldn’t grow it,” Lacks says, “because it’s a tremendous amount of paperwork involved, and inspection.”
With his PRC tobacco, Lacks can apply the regular fertilizer that most flue-cured growers use. With the organic, he says it is much harder to cure the leaf, especially downstalk tobacco, because of the type of fertilizer he uses. He applies a fertilizer called, Nature’s Safe, which he receives from his contractor.
Buyers want the PRC cured leaf as bright as possible, he says. The organic is a different story. They prefer better quality than brightness of leaf. Unfortunately, sometimes he finds it difficult to achieve the clean and clear quality that he and his buyers are looking for because of the fertilizer that carries an 8-3-5 mineral analysis. Lacks applies about 800 pounds of Nature’s Safe, then follows it later with 200 pounds of a 13-0-0 nitrogen analysis.
Lacks buys his transplants from organic grower Ralph Tuck of Virgilina, Va. He buys his PRC transplants from his brother-in-law, Ronnie Howard, in Wylliesburg, Va.
He likes to transplant around May 1. At transplanting, he uses the same transplanter to plant his PRC as he does his organic. “We normally like to plant the organic first, Lacks says. “It takes off a lot slower than the other in growing, plus if you plant your conventional and then go back to your organic you’ve got to clean your barrel. You’ve got to make sure you don’t have residue with your chemicals because they may be picked up in that test.”
To keep hornworms from munching too much on the leaves of his PRC and organic, Lacks applies Dipel, a Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, product. That way he only applies one chemical in the sprayer barrel, and doesn’t have to clean the barrel when changing from PRC to organic. He begins spraying Dipel when he first sees hornworms, and then he estimates he sprays about three times within several weeks, because different crops of hornworms come.
“If you don’t spray it, they’ll eat it clean,” Lacks says. “It’s not real good for budworms, but it’s ideal for hornworms. Another thing it’s not good for is aphids.” For aphid control on his PRC tobacco, he applies Admire. On his organic tobacco, he is not allowed to spray anything for aphids.
On the PRC, he can use Orthene in the transplant water, but he can’t spray it in the field. On the organic he can’t apply any Orthene or any weed killer. MH-30 is not allowed.
For sucker control, he applies O-TAC, which is produced specifically for Santa Fe growers.
Lacks is well known for his clean tobacco, dating back to the 1970s, when he sold cured leaf in sheets in Chase City, Va., and later in the 1980s in South Boston, Va. He was meticulous then, and still is. When it is baled, he is right there with the workers, taking part. “We try our best to dress it up and make it look real good,” he says. “A buyer told me — the head man at Universal — it’s just like you’re buying anything. That first time you see it is the most important. If the appearance is there, you’re almost home free.
“We work on it the very best we can,” Lacks says. “When we go through it and have some that is of very poor quality — and you will have some — we usually throw it away. Either that, or sometimes we might keep it during the season and then just make a bale, carry it, offer it and go from there.”
Womack writes from Danville, Va.
This article published in the July, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.