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FARM SCENE: Tobacco auctions doomed?

July 24, 1997

KINGSTREE, S.C. (AP) _ The staccato chant of auctioneers is sounding again through dim tobacco warehouses, but as buyers roam rows of golden leaf there is the unmistakable sense of an era passing.

The proposed $368 billion settlement between cigarette-makers and states attorneys general and changes in technology may eventually do away with the auctions, long a tradition in tobacco towns across South Carolina and much of the South.

``I think they (tobacco companies) will go to a contract with the farmer and do away with the warehouse,″ said Al Brown, an operator of Brown Bros. Tobacco Warehouse. ``It will be like produce or anything else.″

Tobacco auctions have been a part of life in South Carolina for as long as anyone can remember. Opening day used to mean beauty queens, visits by the governor and campaigning by politicians of every description.

But the 100 or so people who turned out at Brown Bros. on Wednesday were the most in recent years, probably because of interest in the tobacco settlement, said state Sen. Yancey McGill of Kingstree.

He recalled selling snow cones as a child when so many people turned out on opening day they had to be kept back so as not to interfere with the auctioneer.

State Agriculture Commissioner Les Tindal was on hand Wednesday but Gov. David Beasley, in Africa on a trade mission, missed this year’s opening.

The first tobacco sold was high-quality leaf remaining from last season.

``It didn’t bring what it brought last year, but it’s a fair price,″ said grower Mark Scott.

Early prices ranged from $1.80 to $1.85 a pound for leftover tobacco. Last year the same tobacco would have brought a dime more because of increased demand after hurricanes damaged the North Carolina crop, Scott said.

The first of this year’s harvest is expected to be sold at Brown Bros. next week. Tindal said it was too early to predict what the new leaf will bring.

The tobacco settlement is expected to mean farmers will grow less tobacco. And new technology to bundle leaf in large bales could mean a shift to larger farms, said Brown, the warehouse operator.

He said smaller farmers likely won’t be able to afford the $15,000 balers.

Scott, who grows 12 acres, said such changes would force him to give up tobacco and concentrate on his 1,200 acres of cotton.

``It might go to a few tobacco growers growing a lot of acres and selling straight to the companies,″ he said. ``If it does, I’m going to be the first one to get out.″

Brown said about 30 farmers now sell about 2 million pounds a year at the warehouse. A decade ago, there were twice as many selling, he said.

Harry Easler, who has 237 acres near Greeleyville, said growers are concerned about the proposed settlement that would tightly regulate tobacco.

``Everything in this area we have, we got due to tobacco,″ he said. ``These companies are not going to stop making cigarettes, but they are going to go to a friendly country where they are welcomed.″

But for the time being, growers are optimistic, with a good crop and lots of it _ the largest South Carolina crop in 15 years.

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