Burley market opens - for perhaps the last time

November 15, 2004|HERB BROCK

Kurt Lear of Garrard County has grown 40 crops of tobacco during his 65 years. What happened this morning at Farmers Tobacco Warehouse No. 1 in Danville was going to help him decide if he was going to grow a 41st crop.

"With the price support program gone next year and no more guaranteed prices, it's going to be hard to keep growing," said Lear. "I'll see how my crop goes and then make a decision."

Lear's 2,000 pounds were the first crop on the warehouse floor to be up for sale this morning as the 2004 tobacco market - perhaps the last one - kicked off at 9:36 a.m. The first two bales, made of bottom-of-the-stalk "trash," went to the pool at their $1.94 per pound support prices, while his other two bales, comprised of top-of-the-stalk "tips," went for $2.03 and $2.06 per pound.

Lear's bales were among some 750,000 pounds of burley on the floor of Farmers No. 1 with another 200,000 pounds stored in Farmers No. 2, according to warehouse co-owner Jerry Rankin. Nearly 4 million pounds could be sold on this year's Danville market, Rankin said.


"I'm pretty well satisfied with what I got, but I'm not sure it will be enough to convince me to keep growing," Lear said, shivering in the cold conditions inside the warehouse. "I'm still uncertain."

Lots of uncertainty

Uncertainty dominated the mood of other farmers as they face a future that will be without the decades-old price support program that was a victim of the tobacco buyout enacted by Congress.

Melancholy also was evident as longtime farmers looked back on their lives and livelihoods.

The combination of uncertainty about the future and melancholy about the past created a wake-like atmosphere.

"I don't like the changes one bit," said W.M. Alford, 73, of Perryville, who's been growing tobacco since he was 16. "The price support program guaranteed a floor for prices and that guaranteed the farmer would get something for all his labor.

"We're now at the mercy of the tobacco companies, and I don't think they'll show us any mercy," he said.

Wilton Logue, 74, of Boyle County, said that tobacco's heyday as Kentucky's No. 1 cash crop is long over and, because of the end of the price support program, its eventual demise has been guaranteed. And the "death of t'bacca" will hurt the local economy, he said.

"Tobacco has kept many a business going and built many a street," said Logue. "The crop has pumped money into banks and other businesses, not just farm supply places, and it has provided millions of dollars in taxes. "Fellers, peppers and cucumbers aren't going to make up the difference," he added, referring to on-going efforts by state agriculture officials to help farmers develop alternative crops.

Rankin holds out hope

While several veteran growers said they believe this year's warehouse market sale would be the last, warehouse co-owner Rankin held out hope there will be some kind of market next year.

"We're going to do our utmost to make sure we have something next year, whether it's an independent situation like we are this year or we go with a tobacco company," he said. "It depends on the prices we get this market before we can make any decisions. If enough farmers think the prices are decent enough to keep growing, then we'll try to have something for them."

Will Snell, tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said he also isn't sure whether there will be a tobacco warehouse market next year or all sales will be done directly by contract between growers and companies.

"The trend obviously is negative, regarding the future of warehouses," Snell said. "Years back, there were over 100 tobacco warehouses in Kentucky, but now there are just 30.

"With the end of price support and the growth of contract sales, the industry is in transition, and I'm not sure how things will ultimately shake out."

Recalling earlier transitions

Some of the old-timers were recalling earlier transitions. "I remember when I started growing tobacco in the 1940s and you'd get 8 to 9 cents a pound for reds, which at the time was considered the worst leaf on the stalk," said Charlie Carmickle, 75, of Old Stanford Road. "Now, the companies like the reds and are paying up to $2.08 a pound. They like it because it has the highest concentration of nicotine."

Carmickle remembered when tobacco was hand-tied and placed in baskets - baskets he used to babysit overnight at the warehouses.

"I'd drive my pickup truck right up here onto the floor and spend the night," he said. "It took a while to unload and set up, and we wanted to protect it."

"At least you all had a truck. I remember bringing it here by horse and wagon and staying two to three days and nights," said John Stevens.

Well," said Carmickle, "there might not be a warehouse to come to next year. They're going the way of price supports, horses and buggies, and tobacco."

Central Kentucky News Articles