08/12/04 — Duplin tobacco market opening unlike old days

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Duplin tobacco market opening unlike old days

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on August 12, 2004 1:57 PM

WALLACE -- It's quieter and with fewer people than the old days.

Instead of fast-chanting auctioneers walking the rows, the four buyers and three auctioneers hovered over a bale of tobacco synchronizing their hand-held computers.

When the price was right, the buyers pushed a button to lock in the sale.

The computer age has hit the tobacco market, as was shown Wednesday at the opening day of the New Duplin Warehouse.

The auction changed last year to a computerized system. But the new technology is coming at a time when the tobacco market has lost much of its meaning. Many of the markets have closed. Wayne County hasn't had a tobacco market over the last few years.

Most farmers now contract directly with the cigarette companies. And with talk of a federal buyout of tobacco quotas, the future of an already downsized market looks even bleaker.

Despite its diminishing future, the Duplin Agribusiness Council tried to muster up as much fanfare as it could for the opening day. The council was the host Wednesday of a breakfast for growers, buyers, agricultural and elected officials.

Duplin Cooperative Extension Director Ed Emory thanked the warehouse owners, Paul and Jane Phillips, for keeping the warehouse open and giving the growers an option to contracting.

Mrs. Phillips said they are still in business, because they have "a bunch of dedicated farmers, the kind that want to do the best they can."

Duplin County grows about 5,000 acres of tobacco, which produce about 12 million pounds at a value of $22 million, said Duplin Crop Agent Bryant Spivey.

"It's still very important, and it's still the most valuable crop in Duplin County," he said. "Even if we get the buyout, I believe tobacco will continue to be an important crop. ... Every time you ride past an acre of tobacco, there's $55,000 a year in federal, state and local taxes generated."

Raymond Brown, who has been with the tobacco market for 40 years, 28 of them at New Duplin, has seen a lot of changes, and hopes the warehouse will continue to stay in business

But he's afraid the buyout will be the end of the warehouse. "We don't know," he said. "It may be good for us -- or it may not."

Brown, who grows about 50 acres of tobacco near Chinquapin, said the 300,000 pounds on the market floor looked good. They had enough rain early in the season followed by a period of drier weather that added enough stress to toughen up the stalks.

"It's a good crop," said Max Grice, a grader from Warsaw, "a little better, I think, than last year."

Four companies were buying on opening day. They were Diamon, Universal Export, Hail and Cotton.

Several of the observers didn't have any tobacco at the market.

Franklin Williams, who grew tobacco until four years ago, was representing the Duplin County Farm Bureau as its president.

The old system is dying, he said, and a change is needed. He works with his son, Frank, growing 1,200 acres of grain, corn, soybeans and wheat, but no more tobacco.

"We decided to get out before it put us out," said Williams.