N.C. tobacco appeals to international markets

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helps promote exports of N.C. agricultural products through its International Marketing office. Through these efforts, North Carolina now exports about $3 billion in agricultural products each year. Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlight some local growers and food manufacturers finding success on the global stage.

Mike Lynch and U.S. Tobacco Cooperative in Raleigh are finding success in exports.

Tobacco has played a vital role in growing North Carolina’s economy and continues to be a staple North Carolina agricultural product. But, since the passage of the Federal Tobacco Quota Buyout in 2004, the tobacco industry has been in a state of transition. Exports represent a great opportunity to keep N.C. tobacco farmers in business into the future. Mike Lynch, senior vice president of global sales and marketing for U.S. Tobacco Cooperative, is one of the people looking for new opportunities to expand markets for N.C. growers.

Formed in 1946 as Flue Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation, U.S. Tobacco Cooperative served as administrator of the federal tobacco program in North Carolina. When the tobacco program ended after the 2004 growing season, the cooperative began evolving into a sales, marketing, processing and manufacturing company. Its membership includes growers in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Its plant in Timberlake processes and markets 100 percent U.S. tobacco strips, cut-rag blends, expanded stems and cigarettes worldwide.

In 2010, Lynch was named the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Exporter of the Year for his achievements promoting N.C. tobacco exports. The hard work of Lynch and other tobacco exporters is paying off. North Carolina now exports more than 200 million pounds of tobacco each year.

“Two out of every three rows of tobacco grown in North Carolina is exported,” said Scott Bissette, NCDA&CS Ag Programs Administrator. Bissette is one of several key department employees that assist with marketing N.C. tobacco. “Some of the largest buyers are Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Turkey, and of course, China.”

Bissette said the European Union is probably a greater exporting partner than China right now, but the potential in China is incredible.

China grows 50 percent of the world’s tobacco, but demand is growing from Chinese consumers. Chinese tobacco companies want to supplement Chinese leaf with internationally grown tobacco to improve quality. In addition, new emphasis from the Chinese government could limit the amount of tobacco grown by Chinese farmers. A potential decline in Chinese tobacco production could mean an increase in export potential for N.C. growers.

In preparation, Bissette is spearheading an initiative between the department, tobacco buyers, sellers and farmers to create a document outlining Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, for U.S. tobacco. GAPs, which are already used for other agricultural products, are a framework for growing quality products in a responsible way.

In 2010, the department and industry representatives created a GAP document for N.C. tobacco growers. Many tobacco companies also have their own set of GAP requirements for growers. For some tobacco farmers, juggling multiple GAP documents can be tedious. It’s Bissette’s hope the revised GAP document will streamline the requirements and make it easier on local farmers.

“Before, a tobacco grower may have had four contracts with four different companies, each with a different set of requirements,” Bissette said. “The goal of the second phase will standardize the requirements, helping farmers and buyers alike.”

The GAP document will give buyers more assurance that U.S. tobacco is being grown in a sustainable manner using economical and environmentally friendly procedures. It will also help U.S. Tobacco Cooperative and its tobacco growers compete against exporting nations such as Brazil and Zimbabwe in the global market.

Check back for more success stories from the International Marketing office. In the meantime, you can read past success stories for Farm Pak in Spring Hope, Prime Lumber in Thomasville and Cool Springs Nursery in Banner Elk. And, don’t forget to join the conversation on LinkedIn.

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