By Joe Perry, Morning News of Florence
On a warm and breezy early September afternoon, just down the aptly named Tobacco Road, M.D. Floyd and his brothers Larry and Thurmond were busy with a crop that constitutes a small but important part of our state's agribusiness and history.
Tobacco put Mullins on the map as the tobacco headquarters of the state, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, city-block-size warehouses were devoted to the desire to wrest a larger market share from the other Carolina.
"Tobacco made seven millionaires on one street between 1910 and 1921," said Reggie McDaniel, director of the S.C. Tobacco Museum, referring to a boom in his hometown of Mullins, where he can trace his family's roots to a 1757 land grant from King George II.
Indeed, in the 1700s, one pound of tobacco equaled one pound British sterling, said McDaniel, director of the museum for 17 of its 18 year s of existence.
Once a staple of the Pee Dee's economy, tobacco's slow and steady decline is something lifelong farmers like the Floyds in Olanta have witnessed firsthand, but still dedicate acreage and time to its production.
F.B. Farms is two miles outside Olanta, and the 62-year-old Floyd grew up in farming. He recalls picking cotton as a child on 3 to 5 acres his late father Ezelle also used for cows and hogs.
In farming, as in most business models, spreading risk and diversifying is key. The Floyd brothers dedicate 54 acres to tobacco with 1,850 acres for soybeans and 375 acres for corn. They also grow winter wheat, which is double cropped and dependent on several variables.
Now that it's September, though, they're working to get the tobacco ready to ship out in 800 pound bales. The first part of the process is getting the leaves out of the fields and into heated curing barns.
"Putting in" is parlance for spearing tobacco leaves with 12-by-52-inch steel racks that hold about 80 pounds at a time and sliding the racks to fit snugly into a barn, explained Floyd.
Once the greenish-yellow leaves are racked, they have to be stored for a 10-day curing process that sees an initial temperature of 90 degrees in the sealed barn slowly rise to 175 degrees in order to attain the desired color and texture.
"Dry weather held us back," Floyd said as tobacco-filled trailers were unloaded next to the barn. "But then it rained and brought the green (color) back."
F.B. Farms has a contract with Philip Morris for 250,000 pounds of tobacco. A few years ago their contract was for 350,000 pounds. About 15 years ago they contracted for 400,000 pounds and ended up with a bumper crop and subsequent surplus.
"We had so much over. It was almost unbelievable," he said, as the yield was 4,000 pounds of tobacco per acre. A normal yield is about half as much.
Last year about 100 acres of their farmland was used for tobacco, and Floyd hopes his nephews Zack and Detric will ramp up production next year and more or less take over that aspect of the operation.
"It has been a lifeline for many a farmer in this state," Floyd said.
As fewer people smoke, tobacco production has dropped steadily in the state over the years: I n 1950, 114,000 acres were harvested with a production value of $81,711,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, 14,300 acres will bring in $27,170,000.
Peak years are far behind S.C. tobacco farmers. In 1980, 65,000 acres were harvested to bring in $175,003,000 in production value. Ten years later 51,000 acres brought in $174,309,000, according to the USDA, and in 2000, 34,000 harvested acres brought in $143.5 million.
"Tobacco is doing fair," said Jacob Stokes, Clemson University Extension agent for Florence and Williamsburg counties. "We've had some really good and some not-so-good tobacco. It's not going to be the best year, it's not going to be the worst year."
The majority of tobacco in South Carolina is grown in Horry, Marion, Florence, Darlington and Williamsburg counties, Stokes said.
"We don't have near as much tobacco as 10 years ago," he said, owing in part to the high level of labor required, a high cost of chemical applications and the fact it's treated differently than other commodities.
"Most commodities, there's a market - the price goes up, the price goes down. Tobacco companies have a number of pounds in a contract with the grower who will decide if they accept the price and then go from there," he said.
Floyd thinks they should have used 75 acres to reach their contract goal.
"They got all kinds of 'toos,' " he said, referring to the tobacco company's graders. "Too trashy, too clear, too bright. It's challenging to get them what they want."
Tre Coleman, the state's executive director of the agriculture department's cotton and tobacco board, knows M.D. Floyd well and has high praise for the Floyds.
"He and his brothers do a heck of a job," Coleman said. "They're the best tobacco farmers in the state. They have probably the highest yield in the state."
The Floyds are busy with their third and fourth harvest of the year. First harvest was a week after Independence Day, Floyd guesses, with second harvest the last week in July.
"The company wants us to harvest four times," he said.
There are already several 800 - pound bales that were weighed and bound in a packing machine and now sitting in a barn not far from a flatbed truck that takes the tobacco to Mullins.
Granville wilt bacteria and black shank disease are constant enemies kept at bay by rotating plots and application of a fumigant called telone gas that can cost $100 an acre.
"We need more research into tobacco farming," said Floyd, who has served as the state's representative for the American Soybean Association but would rather stay away from politics and Washington, D.C.
"That's an anthill up there," he said, laughing.