Growing tobacco is in Mark Wellons’ blood. Six generations of Wellons have grown it before him, earning his family the honor of having a street named after them.
The Wellons farm in Princeton is 600 acres, 150 of which are dedicated to growing tobacco.
Even though their farm has grown through the generations, Wellons said not much else has changed in the way that tobacco is grown since it was first planted in North Carolina in the 17th century. “It’s a cycle: plant the seed, anticipation for harvest, harvest and cure. The process is the same, we just have better technology,” he said.
Though the process of growing and harvesting tobacco hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years, the tobacco industry has.
In 2004, The NC Buyout legislation ended the state’s 66-year-old tobacco quota. The quotas required farmers to get government approval for the amount of tobacco they could grow in order to match how much could be sold. Farmers also had to buy a 10-year license that specified the amount of tobacco they could grow each year.The quotas ensured that the supply of tobacco grown would not exceed the demand for the product but it created a lot of red tape for the farmers and inflated the cost of tobacco for consumers. The 2004 Buyout took away this step, giving the tobacco farmers more freedom on how, when and where they wanted to grow tobacco.
Scott Bissette, administrator of agricultural programs at the NC Department of Agriculture, said the Buyout has benefited the tobacco industry because it resulted in a more fair asking price for tobacco, making it more globally competitive.
“North Carolina flute-cured tobacco is the best in the world. It’s the best and it was the most expensive. But now the unnecessary cost added by the quotas was taken out, it’s like putting Cadillacs on sale,” he said.
Eastern North Carolina is proud of it’s high quality tobacco according to Dennis Durham, the president of Smithfield’s local farm bureau.
“Tobacco built the industry and infrastructure of eastern North Carolina,” Durham said. “It’s an integral part and an important part of our community.”
Durham said that though the buyout has been good for the tobacco industry overall, many farmers have stopped growing tobacco in his community. He explained that while tobacco is still a major industry in North Carolina, there are fewer tobacco farms in the state.
This is a result of the buyout as well as our nation’s recent recession.
“Since 2005,” Bissette said,” the number of tobacco crops went down. We think there were about 12,000 producers of flute-cured tobacco then. Now we think its down to 2300.”
But this doesn’t mean that we are producing less tobacco. Bissette said that even though there are far fewer farmers than before, NC tobacco industry is growing as much as it ever was. Wellons called it “consolidating,” meaning that the farmers continuing to grow tobacco are purchasing the land from the farmers who’ve stopped, and are in a sense “picking up the slack.”
Wellons has expanded his own farm in the last seven years thus continuing his family’s tradition of tobacco growing in North Carolina.