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Ground-breaking

| February 1, 2011

Cross Creek’s seeds offer unparalleled disease resistance.

 

By Brandy Brinson

 

When tobacco plants grown from Cross Creek’s seeds break ground, they are more likely to resist diseases and nematodes than plants grown from other seeds. The company has collaborated with international breeders to develop flue-cured and burley varieties that are showing resistance at previously unheard-of levels.

“We are now finally able to introduce varieties with increased yield, quality and disease resistance,” says Sam Baker of Cross Creek Seed. “Our collaboration with international breeders has allowed us to stockpile germplasm and use private breeding lines to release these varieties.”

Sam’s brother Ed Baker says, “We have tons of flue-cured varieties offering nematode resistance at rates never been seen before. And the burley we’ve introduced has more resistance to bacterial wilt or Granville wilt than any other burley variety in the world.”

This U.S.-based company in Raeford, North Carolina, was started as a tobacco farm by the Bakers’ father, Eddie Baker, and has evolved into a seed company. Today, Cross Creek Seed is a fully integrated seed company that grows, cleans, pellets and packages its own seed. The company produced seed for Northup King, Novartis, Syngenta and Gold Leaf Seed Company long before it became an independent seed enterprise.

Cross Creek still maintains its family roots even though it is gaining a greater international presence. “We’re unique in that we’re a privately owned company—we are not owned by a big multinational conglomerate—that offers services and varieties on the international stage not found in smaller companies,” says Sam. Cross Creek Seed works with its partner coating company Cross Creek Coating, also in Raeford, to provide a melt-coat pellet that sets the standard for tobacco pellets.

 

Special varieties

The flue-cured varieties CC35, CC 13 and CC 33 were released about three years ago. The need for superior nematode resistance, brown spot resistance and varieties that are slow ripening is especially great in southern Africa—particularly Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania—as well as in Kenya. Tests in Zambia were recently completed and sales have increased dramatically ever since, says Ed. Tests in Malawi are now being conducted.

The demand for disease-resistant burley varieties is especially prevalent in the burley growing regions of Guatemala and the Philippines, where there are severe problems with wilt, says Sam. Previously, he says there was “nothing on the market to compensate for it.”

He says that historically, on a scale of 1 to 10, burley varieties had a rating of 2 or 3 for wilt disease resistance. “Ours has a 9.4-9.7 on disease resistance.”

The success in the field has caused Cross Creek’s sales to surge 500 percent from the first year to the second year. They expect sales to double again this year. “These products have taken our international sales from one-fourth of our total sales to 40-45 percent,” says Ed.

 

K 326

The forefather of today’s flue-cured products is the K 326 seed. “It’s an oldie but a goodie,” says Sam. “It’s the backbone of every flue-cured product and one of the most planted varieties in the world. It still makes up a huge market share for us.”

Cross Creek’s reputation for selling a quality K 326 product is the reason the company has been able to gain a foothold in the market and expand its market share, says Sam. Bill Earley, breeder of K 326, is considered the father of modern flue-cured tobacco and was an integral part of Cross Creek Seed. Earley chose Cross Creek Seed to plant the very first crop of K 326, where it has been produced ever since. Earley became an exclusive consultant to Cross Creek in 2000 because he believed the company had the experience and quality control to continue producing the K 326 he expected as the breeder. This belief was well–founded, as Cross Creek Seed has never had a complaint about off-type plants in K 326, says Sam.

“That was our building block. When we started, initially people could see that ours was the only true and original type on the market. That’s the reason we’ve been able to grow our market share,” says Sam.

After Earley passed away in 2006, Sam says that left only one other person who was as knowledgeable about K 326—Eddie Baker. “My father knows more about K 326 than anyone on the planet because he has grown it, studied it and looked after it for 30 years, longer than any other breeder or producer in the world.”

Expansion

Today, Cross Creek continues to grow. The company now has active sales and ongoing trials in 27 countries.

Cross Creek commercially offers about 40 different flue-cured lines, 11 varieties of burley and 10 varieties of dark air-cured, as well as Wisconsin-type, Maryland-type—“just about any type of tobacco,” says Sam—and additional varieties of all types in various trials. In 2006, Cross Creek Coating was recognized as having an organic tobacco pellet and plans on offering certified organic tobacco seed and pellets for sale shortly. Burley varieties sold have been screened for low converters, and all varieties are tested for GMO.

The company is well-prepared to handle expansion. Seeing a growth rate of 500 percent in one year might leave some companies scrambling to keep up, but Cross Creek has managed the growth with ease. “Seed production has never been an issue for us,” says Sam.

The real challenge lies in meeting customers face to face, something the company believes in. Ed and Eddie are busy circling the globe—going to Africa this month, Argentina next, through eastern Europe the next and back to Asia after that.

“That’s been the biggest challenge,” says Ed. “The issue of production is in place, the issue of shipping is in place.” He says making contacts in person is the most important part of doing business. “There’s so much advertising on paper that people are skeptical. If you go have a face-to-face meeting, it shows a belief and a confidence in your product that doesn’t necessarily translate on paper.” Being in constant contact with customers is important to Cross Creek.

As demand increases, the company may expand its production overseas. “Everything for the U.S. is produced in the U.S.,” says Ed. For the international markets, Cross Creek also produces some in Africa and in Chile as well.

“I do see potential for increased production outside the U.S.,” he says. While production outside the U.S. can be less expensive, he says that more importantly, some places are stricter on imports from the U.S.

For example, Sri Lanka has restrictions on U.S. seed due to blue mold concerns. There is no blue mold in Chile, so seeds produced in Chile can be shipped to Sri Lanka. Another issue is import tariffs—there are large import tariffs on U.S. shipments to some African countries.

 

Steam sterilization

A side business that Cross Creek has been developing in the U.S. involves the sterilization of trays. Farmers have traditionally used methyl bromide to clean their trays, but as it is being phased out, steam offers a good alternative. More U.S. farmers are turning to steam as methyl bromide becomes more restricted and expensive. The price is expected to double this year.

The business was born out of necessity for Cross Creek’s own production. “We have so many acres of transplants, we had to guarantee that the quality remains constant,” says Ed. “Steam sterilization is the hot new thing.”

The company engineered a new, efficient tray-washing device. They also poured a concrete slab and placed three refrigerated, insulated trailer units on it. They removed the cooling systems and installed a commercial heater on a 2-inch gas line to run the units at the same time. The water is heated for 30 minutes to steam the trays at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Once the trays are steamed, they are sealed in plastic until they are ready for use.

Cross Creek is not only steaming its own trays but has developed a business steaming other farmers’ trays as well. This year, about 10 farmers will bring their trays to Raeford for steaming, and Ed expects to expand that business next year.

The company is also selling the steam sterilization units. Next up will likely be a portable sterilization unit that can be transported to various farms.

Steam sterilization is conducted during winter months, while seed production is ongoing year-round—growing in the summer months, cleaning in the fall, pelleting and packaging in the winter and seeding in the spring. Tray sterilization must be conducted during the U.S. winter months from mid-December through mid-February when heat and humidity are not issues.

Ed says this wasn’t supposed to be a side business; it just developed naturally as Cross Creek aims to be a full-service provider.

The need for this type of technology could expand outside the U.S. as more countries move toward float-tray technology. “When the methyl bromide runs out, they will have to go to some type of float bed system; they will be forced into greenhouse technology,” says Sam. Farms would do well to look to Cross Creek as an example.