WARESBORO, Ga. - Flue-cured tobacco markets on the Georgia-Florida belt are kicking off a 14-week sell-a-thon that is critical to growers and vital to the economies of rural communities that rely heavily on tobacco revenues.
With millions of pounds of unsold tobacco in storage and their industry under attack by the president and some members of Congress, Georgia growers were apprehensive as they prepared to sell their drought-weathered 1998 crop. Georgia's 1,500 growers produced $153 million worth of tobacco last year.
Opening-day sales were held today in Blackshear, Moultrie, Nashville, Douglas, Alma and Vidalia, Ga., and in Madison, Fla.
Sales volume during the first hour was moderate to light in Georgia and moderate to heavy in Florida, the Federal-State News Service said. Primings, which made up the majority of sales, sold for $142 to $158 per hundred pounds. The average price on opening day last year was $174.08 per hundred.
J. Michael Moore, a University of Georgia Extension Service tobacco specialist, rates this year's crop as "good-plus," despite three months of drought and temperatures around 100 degrees. Most of the crop is irrigated.
"It's better than average, but not the excellent crop we expect," Moore said.
Georgia had 44,000 acres of tobacco last year, with average yields of 2,030 pounds per acre. The average price was $1.71 per pound.
Growers have 42,000 acres this year, and Moore expects yields to average about 2,000 pounds per acre.
Cigarette companies are likely to be very selective because of the stored tobacco and the "tremendous uncertainty" facing the industry, Moore said.
"The growers are always hopeful, but they approach this market season with a lot of concern," he said. "The concerns are: Under which conditions and programs will we keep growing tobacco in Georgia; how can we best maintain our markets."
The industry is mired in controversy this year and its future is uncertain.
Cigarette companies face lawsuits by states trying to recoup money spent to treat smoking-related illnesses, some members of Congress are calling for the elimination of tobacco subsidies and tobacco sales have been sluggish on the world market. As a result, 180 million pounds produced last year in Georgia and other states remains in storage at growers' expense.
"It scares me to death," said grower Donald Mixon, 51, of Waresboro, eight miles west of Waycross. "The average person doesn't realize what tobacco farmers have invested. We have a million dollars in tobacco equipment. If we were forced out of the business, it would put us in financial ruin."
Donald Mixon farms with his 71-year-old father, Jack, and his 20-year-old son, Phillip.
With 212 acres of tobacco this year, the Mixons are considered cutting-edge growers. They were among the first to use center-pivot irrigation and they have added five greenhouses to grow tobacco plants. Because of their excellent reputation, they are invited by the extension service to take part in experimental projects.
"Tobacco has been my life," said Jack Mixon. "I was raised on a small farm with three acres. When I was 16 I went to Canada to pick. Their fields were 60 acres. It was my ambition to have a big field of tobacco."
He's achieved his goal. One of his fields is 132 acres and another, 62 acres.
"It's pretty to me," he said after a tour of a field. "It looks like ham and eggs, or prime rib every now and then. Tobacco has been good to us."