A dream that once seemed remote has become reality for American flue-cured tobacco growers: The People’s Republic of China is becoming a dependable buyer of American leaf.
And more sales could be coming. “We have the opportunity to expand our business with China,” says Albert Johnson of Gallivants Ferry, South Carolina. “China has said it will increase purchases here.”
“They want more US leaf, and they are very serious about it,” adds Arnold Hamm, general manager of the cooperative.
The significance of all this is not lost on the farmers, who know that China bought little American flue-cured in modern times until the cooperative made its first sale in 2005.
Richard Jenks, a flue-cured grower from Apex, North Carolina who just retired from the cooperative’s board, says, “The next big challenge to the coop is going to be to find a way to continue to work with the Chinese. I think we may have to partner with them a bit in some areas.”
The Chinese, like all modern cigarette manufacturers, place a high priority on the absence of foreign material–or as it is called now, non-tobacco-related material (NTRM). The cooperative is taking steps to educate its growers about how to address the Chinese concerns.
A product integrity program was created this year to help member/growers understand some of the problems, says Hamm. “The intent is not to embarrass or chastise any farmer, but to assist in understanding what can be done on the farm to minimize NTRM.”
Among undesirable NTRMs are organic materials like grasses, tobacco stalks, paper and cotton strings, and non-organic materials like styrofoam, plastics, metals, hydraulic fluid, and nylon.
On another issue related to quality, flue-cured growers are urged to maintain the moisture content of their baled tobacco in the recommended range.
Moisture in the baled leaf affects the ability of the purchaser to efficiently process the tobacco and to safely store the tobacco until processing, according to Extension Service recommendations. A level below 12% may result in excessive leaf shatter during baling. Excessive moisture will impact the ability to store the bale without damage to the tobacco.
The burley cooperatives in the US have also made some sales to China, but since all-flue-cured cigarettes dominate the Chinese market, the flue-cured growers have had an easier time.
Barring unforeseen events, that situation is unlikely to change for some time. A source who has visited China on tobacco missions told Tobacco International that the limiting factor in the near term will not be what they can use in their blends but how much they can afford.
The only competitor for this type of leaf seems to be Zimbabwe, but that country lacks the stability to be a dependable supplier.
So for now, the Chinese seem certain to be heading back to North Carolina this fall with orders in hand.
“They have bought more than 60% of our crop the past two years, and the fact of the matter is that they want more,” says Hamm. “We are studying ways to help China meet its needs.”