NEWBERRY, Fla. • Trevor Bass walked among the rows of tobacco plants — the broad, green leaves up to his chest — and declared a good crop.
From amid the 210 acres planted in tobacco this year, the plants cover the horizon. Sometime in July, a harvester will drive between the rows and start knocking the lower leaves off — upper leaves come later — as a crew of about 30 people loads the leaves onto a school bus with the roof partially removed.
The leaves are piled on a conveyor belt on the bus and roll into metal boxes called leaf loaders that hold 1,800 to 2,400 pounds each. They then are loaded into 31 11-by-40 climate-controlled metal barns where the tobacco is heated by liquefied petroleum gas.
After a harvest that takes seven to nine weeks, the flue-cured tobacco is hauled to Tifton, Ga., where Bass has contracts to sell to three major tobacco companies.
A separate field of organic tobacco is also harvested, cured and hauled to Tifton, where it is sold to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company for its Natural American Spirit cigarettes.
Bass, 34, is a fourth-generation farmer and the fourth generation to grow tobacco. He is also among the last tobacco growers in Florida and one of the reasons Alachua County has emerged as the top tobacco-growing county in the state.
In 1997, Florida had 196 tobacco growers — including 28 in Alachua County — with 6,951 acres and $26 million in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five-year census. By 2012, that number had shrunk to 10 growers in the state, with three in Alachua County, totaling 482 acres and $1.4 million in sales. Of those 482 acres, 373 were in Alachua.
Bass knows of four local growers this year, including Hodge Farms, his neighbors in Newberry.
Hodge Farms keeps about 150 of their 1,500 total acres in tobacco, according to Gail Hodge, whose husband David’s family has been growing tobacco since 1936.
J. Michael Moore, a tobacco extension agronomist with the University of Georgia who works with tobacco farmers in Georgia and Florida, estimates that Florida has about 1,250 acres in tobacco this year, taking into account anecdotal information that doesn’t always match the USDA data.
North Carolina and Kentucky produce the vast majority of the nation’s tobacco.
Moore said the exodus out of tobacco farming first started as a result of narrow profit margins before the end of the quota and price support loan system in 2004.
The quota system started in 1938, during the Great Depression, to control price volatility by placing limits on acreage and production. The system ended with the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, or Tobacco Buyout, in 2004, with tobacco companies funding $10 billion in payments to growers and quota owners over 10 years.
Now, tobacco companies contract directly with growers instead of through the old auction system and growers are not limited to where they can grow.
Moore said a lot of farmers who were at or near retirement age and didn’t have children who wanted to take over took advantage of the buyout to leave the business.
Nationwide, the number of tobacco farmers has dropped 70 percent since the buyout and 38 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the USDA.
Remaining tobacco farms tend to be larger, Moore said.
Tobacco farmers say they are motivated by the relatively stable prices of tobacco compared with the often wild swings for other commodities.
Hodge said the limited number of buyers — mainly large tobacco companies — and their direct contracts with farmers keep prices relatively steady.
“Year in and year out, tobacco has always been the commodity that has paid the bills compared to row crops, grain crops and vegetables,” Moore said.
Bass, who started growing tobacco when he took over the family farm in 2006, said last year was the best price he has received at $2.26 per pound. Prices are down about 8 percent this year because of an oversupply, he said.
Last year, growers increased production in response to a worldwide shortage of quality flue-cured tobacco, Moore said, and this year are contracting for 25 percent less tobacco.
U.S. tobacco is in demand worldwide for its flavor, with more than half sold abroad and added to cheaper, lesser quality foreign tobacco as a flavoring agent, Moore said. He attributed environmental conditions and the abilities of U.S. growers for producing the aromatic qualities that smokers prefer.
The market for tobacco products is in decline in the U.S., where cigarette consumption fell 6 percent from 2012 to 2013, and in the European Europe, but is growing in China and throughout Southeast Asia, according to North Carolina State University’s U.S. Tobacco Situation and Outlook report.
Exports of U.S. flue-cured tobacco to China exceeded exports to the EU for the first time in 2013 and they are projected to grow 17 percent from 2013 to 2018.
Bass is able to sell his organic tobacco for about twice the amount of a regular crop, as high as $4.15 per pound for the highest quality leaf compared to $2.22 for nonorganic, while the lowest quality leaf starts at 50 cents for each.
To be certified organic, tobacco crops must use natural fertilizer and insecticide, with choices of blood meal, feather meal, meat and bone meal, sulfate and potash for fertilizer. Bass uses an insecticide made from a naturally occurring soil bacteria that kills worms.
He also keeps a separate set of equipment used only on the organic tobacco just to be on the safe side. Farmers have lost their organic certifications for not properly washing out sprayers used on nonorganic crops, he said.
Describing himself as a social smoker, Bass said organic cigarettes have a more natural flavor, with the same aroma as his barns, and they burn twice as long as regular cigarettes. Smokers will pay an extra $1 or so per pack for organic.
“It’s no more or less healthy, but the word sells,” Bass said.
From a shed used as an office on the family farm, Bass’ grandmother, Evertice Bass, who is 88, described helping her father plant tobacco one plant at a time with a mule and a hoe, and pulling worms off the stalks.
“Naturally, all the boys had fun with them. If there were any girls there working, they gloried in putting them worms on the girls ‘cause they’d run and scream,” she said.
The tobacco that is now cured by LP gas in a climate-controlled barn was heated by wood fire that had to be continuously stoked, she said.
Her husband, Sylvester Bass, started growing tobacco in 1952. Their sons, Wayne and Bo, took over, but got out of tobacco growing in the early 1980s.
Trevor Bass farms the original family farm and additional acreage he bought in nearby Gilchrist County — 5,000 acres total. He also grows corn, watermelons and peanuts and raises cattle, fish, rats and snakes.
Water from his tilapia fish ponds is used to fertilize whatever crops are rotated nearby that year.
“One of the better (tobacco) crops I ever made we were using the fish water,” he said.
This year he is using the water on millet grass crops used for cattle feed.
“I haven’t had to put any fertilizer on the millet this year,” he said. “Fish water is very fertile.”