Pittsylvania County is the tobacco capital of Virginia, with no other county coming close in terms of production.

Located in the thick of the tobacco belt, the county produces about one-fourth of Virginia’s flue-cured tobacco, according to U.S. Farm Service Agency data.

Tobacco was the reason the city of Danville came into existence, and it has played a major part in upholding the economies of both the city and the county.

As county growers have begun harvesting the leaves — a process that will last into October for many — the tobacco industry as a whole is on unsteady ground.

Production in Pittsylvania County and throughout the United States is on a significant decline, while profit margins grow thinner and thinner. Growers with decades of experience, their family legacies and very livelihoods tied into tobacco, are unsure of how much longer, or even if, tobacco can continue to sustain them.

Production decline

Tobacco production nationwide has consistently dropped during the past several years after an increase in the previous five years. Pittsylvania County flue-cured tobacco acreage steadily rose from 4,736.9 in 2009 to a peak of 6,342.94 in 2014, according to the Farm Service Agency. Since then, acreage in the county has been on a decline, though not as drastic as the rest of the state.

According to a March report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Virginia farmers intended to set 17,000 acres of flue-cured tobacco, which is a nearly 20% decrease from the previous year.

The decline in production can be attributed to several factors.

First, there has been a major reduction in tobacco consumption both domestically and internationally because of health concerns, said Stephen Barts, a Virginia Tech extension agent. He said the domestic market has been declining between 2% and 3% per year, but the significant scaling back in major markets like Russia and China is the real issue.

Another problem for American tobacco farmers is the price. Countries including Brazil and Zimbabwe are increasing their tobacco production and selling it for much less than U.S. farmers can afford, said Bob Harris, a farmer and president of the Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau.

“We physically can’t grow as cheap as they can,” he said.

The current strength of the U.S. dollar means anything grown internationally will be cheaper, and the major tobacco companies are gravitating to the lower prices.

“We grow the best tobacco in the world, but we are a costly market,” Barts said.

Robert Mills, a tobacco farmer who serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau board of directors, said international tariffs and the trade war have had a strong negative impact on tobacco growers in the county.

The actual number of planted acres will be released by the Department of Agriculture later this month, and farmers won’t know for sure if their crop was profitable for several months.

Growing tobacco

Most Pittsylvania farmers purchase their tobacco plants from greenhouses and begin planting their flue-cured tobacco sometime between late April and mid-May.

Even within the county, there is significant variation in the soil and exact needs of the plants. Barts said an ideal tobacco growing season in Pittsylvania County includes adequate rainfall in the first weeks of May, a dry June, a relatively wet July and a couple of rains in early August.

This growing season, no hurricanes or major storms caused severe damage to crops as has happened in previous years, but the weather still caused some problems. Intense rainfalls in May led to root damage in many plants, which made it difficult for the plants to deal with the dry June.

“The extremes, they’re hard to mitigate, but a grower can certainly mitigate drought stress better than water stress,” Barts said.

Late in the process, growers cut the flower off the top of the plant, a process called topping. This causes the plants to stop growing upward and invest more nutrients into the leaves.

The harvesting process takes several months. Tobacco leaves ripen from the bottom to the top, so farmers begin the harvest by removing the lowest layer of leaves. Then, depending on the weather, they will come back in a few weeks to take the next layer of leaves. For flue-cured tobacco, growers hope to get 20 to 22 leaves per plant spread through four or five different pickings.

Not all the leaves are equal, as the lower leaves tend to be smaller and thinner, while the top layers are thicker and weightier.

“All your money is in the upper stalk tobacco,” said Daniel Moore, a county tobacco farmer.

After the curing process — which involves as much as two weeks of keeping the tobacco in a barn at high temperatures that slowly escalate to up to 160 degrees — the leaves will become crumbly and take on a golden-brown color.

The leaves are misted, put into bales that weigh 700 to 800 pounds, and transported to the buyers.

Dry weather during the harvest season extends the time needed for the leaves to ripen, which can be costly. Generally, tobacco plants that aren’t harvested by the first frost will die.

Smaller profits

Data from the Agriculture Department shows between the censuses in 1997 and 2017, tobacco sales in Pittsylvania County dropped from about $40 million to $20 million annually, not accounting for inflation.

Some of that drop can be attributed to the decline in production, but not all of it. Up until the 1990s, farmers primarily sold their tobacco in auction houses, which allowed for strong competition and high prices.

Even though there were no contracts, farmers knew they could generate profit.

“Tobacco has always been king here in Southside. It was the one crop that you could make money on any given year,” Mills said.

With the shift from auctions to contracts with companies like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, that has changed to uncertainty. Buyers now have more leverage and the authority to determine the quality — and therefore the selling price — of the tobacco they take.

Selling prices have remained largely flat for the past several decades, and, if anything, have declined slightly, Harris said. Over that same period, however, production costs have increased by as much as 400%.

The actual costs and profits vary depending on the contract, Mills said. Generally speaking, most county farmers will have somewhere between $4,500 and $5,000 invested per acre of tobacco, and hope to receive somewhere between $500 and $1,000 per acre on top of their initial investment. Much of that money goes toward paying labor.

One of the most significant increases has been in the cost of labor. The majority of Pittsylvania County farmers hire temporary migrant workers through the federal H-2A program, created by Congress in 1986 to allow farmers to legally hire foreign workers. The U.S. Department of Labor sets the minimum hourly wage each year.

Farmers also are required to pay for housing and transportation for the workers they hire.

In Virginia, the Labor Department has increased the minimum hourly wage for H-2A workers every year since 2013. For 2019, the minimum wage is $12.25, a nearly 21% increase from what was paid six years ago.

The squeeze particularly is strong on smaller farmers, as many of their costs, such as equipment and housing and transportation costs for their workers, are fixed regardless of how many acres they have. Moore has increased his production during the past several years in an effort to reach a sustainable profit margin.

“It’s just hard to stay afloat little anymore,” Moore said.

But farms of all sizes are feeling the strain.

“In today’s market, it’s pretty tough regardless of how big or small you are,” Harris said.

Many county farmers have adapted by diversifying their operations as much as possible — adding cattle, chickens, grain and other crops and livestock to reduce their dependence on tobacco.

Many tobacco farmers are experimenting this year with industrial hemp — now that it’s legal to grow commercially in Virginia — which has significant risk as well as profit potential.

With the declining profits and demand, the future of the industry — and the way of life for the farmers involved — is up in the air.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the future of tobacco right now,” Harris said.

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Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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