The organic approach to tobacco production continues to grow in the United States
By Chris Bickers
The future of organic tobacco looks bright to Aaron Sink of High Point, North Carolina, USA—so bright, in fact, that earlier this year he bought a farm specifically to grow organic tobacco. “We are getting a good vibe about growing this type of leaf,” he says. “The manufacturer, Santa Fe, is pushing to increase production of organic cigarettes, and that gives us the chance to increase at our end.”
Sink has built a greenhouse on the new farm and was moving curing barns on it when Tobacco Reporter interviewed him in March. “I am definitely willing to make some capital expenditures to provide it.”
But he still has to rent much of his tobacco land—80 acres this year—and the organic approach has provided an unexpected benefit: It has helped him gain access to rental land that he might not have gotten if he had been growing conventional. You see, he farms on the edge of an urbanized area, and city landowners are not always anxious to rent to conventional farmers.
But near chemical-free organic culture is much more appealing. “My landlords like the idea of the organic option,” Sink says. “It has definitely opened some doors for me.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that organic is a very difficult way to grow tobacco. No weed-control chemicals are approved for organic, so all that a grower can do is plow.
Same thing for disease control: Crop rotation is substantially the only tool available. Sink grows one year of tobacco followed by wheat, then a year of a legume. Of course, as far as possible, he chooses disease-free fields for organic tobacco.
Sucker control has been an enormous problem for organic tobacco in the past, with most of it having to be done by hand. But for the last two seasons, Santa Fe growers have had an effective option. OTAC, a new contact sucker control agent developed by Santa Fe and Fair Products, was approved for use in organic programs in late 2009. In Extension testing in North Carolina at the time, the results from use of the fatty alcohol product were similar to other sucker control products, said Loren Fisher, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist. “It doesn’t appear that a farmer would lose any control by using it. OTAC looks like a good fit in organic tobacco or in any program where you are trying to reduce or eliminate the use of MH.”
Insect control is a major problem also. Sink uses a couple of cultural methods of dealing with the situation: He plants sunflowers around his organic tobacco as a trap crop for beneficial insects like ladybugs, and he sows tall fescue grass in vulnerable areas to compete with those weeds that might host other insects.
These practices help, but Sink has learned he has to tolerate a little more insect damage than he was accustomed to before he went organic. “Especially, there isn’t much you can use on aphids in this type of tobacco,” he says.
Among other tobacco farmers who have gone organic in recent years:
Roger Smith of Brooksville, Kentucky, USA, has tried to come up with a feasible insect control program. “We’ve learned to promote populations of beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings by planting crops that attract them,” he says. “They like to breed in sunflowers, hay and certain flowers.”
Back in the early 1990s, Smith was one of the first American farmers to grow organic burley, and there are still only a few of them. Now, he says he would not be raising tobacco if it wasn’t organic. “But you have to work hard at this to make it work. Organic burley will be confined to small-scale growers until there is more demand. But the interest is definitely growing. The price offered by SFNTC is substantially higher than the market price.”
Smith is planning to produce 4,000 pounds of organic burley this year. He hopes he will get a boost from a variety that is relatively new to his farm: KT 204. It has the reputation of yielding higher than the standard organic variety, TN 90. KT 206 had performed well too in recent years, but it is no longer available as an organic seed source.
Smith is optimistic about the future of organic tobacco, although he notes that anything in agriculture is iffy at the moment.
It is challenging for farmers to change the way they farm, and it may well be difficult and costly, says organic tobacco grower Billy Carter of Eagle Springs, North Carolina. But if you plan carefully, including finding a dependable commercial company who will work with you, it can become a profitable venture.
One reason is changing consumer demand.
“A high percentage of consumers are requesting a more natural vegetable,” he says. “People don’t want a lot of additives and poisonous materials put into food products. And many people are aware of the threat of ground water and soil being altered by chemicals.”
Naturally, to be certified organic, the land must be free of pesticides and chemicals for a period of three years prior to the first sowing date, he says.
“The crops need to be rotated regularly to avoid depletion of soil nutrition. Soil and nematode samples must be taken yearly for nutrition analysis. And drip irrigation is preferable to overhead watering techniques. We also hand-water crops as we see fit.”
Like nearly all of Santa Fe’s growers, Carter uses sunflowers to keep insects in check.
“We plant two rows of sunflowers to every eight rows of tobacco. We seed the sunflowers about 10 days before the tobacco is transplanted.”
There is no crop dusting or pesticide runoff. Natural fertilizers are used in a dedicated certified crop. “Organic farming can build up soil organic matter better than conventional no-till farming.”
Stanley Hughes, a flue-cured grower in Orange County, North Carolina, is a real believer in organic tobacco. “Particularly because of the favorable price I get when I bring in a certified organic crop of quality tobacco. By producing quality leaf, using environmentally friendly chemicals and proven cultural practices, I’ve been receiving a premium price.”
Hughes was one of the first organic farmers to cultivate tobacco under contract to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company.
“Organic tobacco is a nice little niche market for a small farmer like myself,” he says. “It allows me to make a good living farming full time.”
The price Santa Fe pays is justified, says Mike Little, president of the company. “Our organic growers are producing crops that are under more stress and a whole lot more susceptible to Mother Nature, so we pay them a little more.”
The prices are not guaranteed, he points out: Growers are paid only if their tobacco tests free of prohibited pesticides.
“There’s a near-zero tolerance under the USDA certification rules,” says Little, who initiated the program for SFNTC. “If we find something that exceeds the rules, then it won’t make organic. It’s not that we won’t take that tobacco, but it loses organic certification right there. We’ll go ahead and use it in one of our conventional blends.
“Nevertheless, we are committed to organic production in order to continue using the best possible tobacco in our products. Once farmers learn to produce organic tobacco, they find the skills and knowledge translate well to growing organic produce.”
Little takes pride in the fact that once the company recruits a grower to its organic program, he never asks to get out.
“We have an attractive contract; growers understand and like that about us. Also, we work hard to establish and maintain good relationships with all of our growers. We are in communication with them year-round.”
Organic certification allows the growth of other high-value seasonal crops, which can demand a premium price on the ever-expanding organic market, says Fielding Daniel, SFNTC’s director of leaf. “Our growers are heartened by this new and profitable market and worry less about petrochemicals, the cost and the risk of mishandling of them. Many also tell us that they are seeing a return of long-missed wildlife and nature to their land.”
Little says Santa Fe is committed to this type and will continue to promote organic tobacco production.
“Although organic farming is more labor intensive and requires land to lie fallow for three years before certification, we are committed to its principles in order to continue using the best possible tobacco in our products,” he says. “Sustainable agriculture promotes the interests of small independent farmers, not only for tobacco but also for the organic vegetables and other crops grown in rotation with it. More organic production is in line with our company’s principles and better for the environment.”