J. Michael Moore was in a caravan of about 20 cars that had made four stops in Florida and was closing in on Valdosta.
Moore, the tobacco expert for the University of Georgia Extension Service, was on the annual tour of tobacco farms in which growers and others see the latest methods of battling disease, processing the flue-cured crop and discuss some business issues.
The tour isn’t the chore it once was.
“It got shorter. We’ve got fewer people,’’ he said.
It’s been a long time since Georgia farmers reached the high-water mark of about 96 million pounds. This year, they will produce about 30 million pounds based on 2,200 to 2,400 pounds per acre, Moore said.
In a telephone interview, Moore said he didn’t expect many more farmers to drop out and that some of those who remain – about 150 in Georgia and 15 in Florida – have invested heavily in the latest production technology and land.
“We have a highly invested core group. I think the group we have will be growing tobacco for the foreseeable future,’’ he said.
Daniel Johnson, who grew up growing tobacco west of Blackshear, says he’s in it to stay.
“I’m on my 31st crop, and I’m 50, he said.
His grandfather grew it, his father grew it and, when it came his turn, he had perhaps 15 to 20 acres of quota tobacco he could call his own so he had to rent quota from others. There is, however, no more quota to own or rent.
The federal government did away with the Depression-era quota system about 10 years ago, leaving farmers to contract directly with tobacco companies.
“I’m able to grow more tobacco than I did with the quota system,’’ he said.
A lot more, in fact.
He has 450 acres scattered among fields near the Bacon County line. In a field near his home, the tobacco stretched from the Old Alma Highway across 40 acres to his farm buildings.
His young green tobacco had a few insignificant blemishes, and most of his fields are in good shape partly because of the weather. The rain that delayed planting is now coming when it’s needed, he said.
“It needs to suffer a little while,’’ from a little dry weather and sink deep roots going after water, he said. Then when the rain comes, the crop flourishes, he said.
Not that the weather is always beneficial. A thunder storm with heavy wind came through one night, flattening one field, he said.
“I’ve got 40 acres laid over,’’ he said.
He had workers in the field standing the tobacco back up and getting it anchored upright, otherwise it would be impossible for the mechanical pickers to harvest.
The automation is one thing that makes growing tobacco better, Johnson said.
Back on the farm, some of his tobacco barns – actually metal buildings about the size of semi-trailers – were getting new roofs. When he scraps seven and gets eight new ones, Johnson will have 55 ready for the harvest.
“We’ll be picking six or seven barns a day,’’ he said. “We used to pick one and be happy with that. We’ve got it about as hands-free as you can get.”
Then he added, “Until they come up with something else.”
University of Georgia County Extension Agent James Jacobs said Johnson’s tobacco is part of the 11,000 acres being grown in Pierce County.
“The growers have been in it a long time,’’ he said.
As has Jacobs.
“My summers were spent in the tobacco patch all the way through college. It taught me to work,’’ he said.
Patch was an apt description: Just about every farm had a few acres of tobacco, and 40 acres was considered a big crop, he said.
There were some expectations that tobacco would fade away, but Pierce County “had a little bump’’ this year and Jacobs was hopeful it would continue.
Reading the tea leaves of tobacco’s future in Georgia is a little problematic because the market is changing again.
“The thing that confronts the tobacco industry now is the e-cigarette industry,’’ Moore said. E-cigarettes are battery-powered sticks that turn liquid nicotine into vapor that is inhaled like smoke.
Georgia tobacco farmers’ best hope is that they can become suppliers for the companies – pharmaceutical companies in some cases – that extract nicotine from tobacco, Moore said.
Until recently, all the e-cigarettes came from China, but two groups are now growing the darker tobacco favored for liquid nicotine on farms in Tennessee and Kentucky, Moore said.
The Tennessee tobacco is shipped to Albany, Ga., for extraction, and Moore makes the argument the shipping costs could be eliminated by growing the dark-leaf tobacco in Georgia.
That remains to be seen, but if tobacco is to recover some of its lost acreage in Georgia, companies must continue down a recent path of signing multiyear contracts at better prices, Moore said.
Indeed, the uncertainty that came with one-year contracts and low prices is what finally moved some farmers to switch crops.
The tour formerly stopped every year in Waresboro at Jack Mixon’s pond house, where he’d feed supper to his fellow growers and others on the trip. Mixon, who died in March 2103, had grown tobacco his whole life and his son, Donald, and grandson, Phillip, had taken over the operation and had planned to keep growing the crop.
Today, however, there’s not one stalk of tobacco on the Mixon farm. Instead, the tobacco barns are gone and the Mixons are running a blueberry packing house, said Phillip Mixon’s wife, Kim.
The family couldn’t stick with tobacco because there just wasn’t any money in the crop in the early years of direct contracts with tobacco companies, she said.
The quota system, with its price supports, had just about guaranteed income to farmers.
Even since the Depression, tobacco had been grown under a USDA-administered quota system based on tobacco company’s projected needs. But President George W. Bush signed an act Oct. 22, 2004, to implement the Tobacco Transition Payment Program to shift farmers to the free market under which tobacco companies began dealing directly with growers.
Everyone with a tobacco allotment got a buyout. The payments, funded by $10 million in assessments levied against tobacco product manufacturers and importers, began in 2004 and will end this year.
“We got a substantial buyout’’ and invested it in blueberry production and the packing house, Kim Mixon said.
So far, it’s been more reliable than tobacco, she said.
Moore said the Mixons are in good company, that a lot of farmers have gotten out of tobacco. He remembers when about every sizable county seat had at least one tobacco warehouse and when opening day was a very big deal.
There are now only three warehouses in South Georgia, in Nashville, Brookfield and Douglas, and there is no opening day.
Call the old phone number for the enormous Alma Bright Leaf Tobacco Warehouse in Alma, and you’ll hear “Blueberry Warehouse.”