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For most tobacco growers, cultivating tobacco without the use of chemicals is like starting a fire without matches. Sure, you could do it. But why would you want to? Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (SFNTC), a North Carolina-based manufacturer committed to the production of premium tobacco products with additive-free tobacco, contracts with an increasing number of growers who have a few good reasons.
“Our growers tell us that they share our strong interest in environmental sustainability and sustainable agriculture,” says Fielding Daniel, leaf director for
SFNTC. “These growers believe the benefits to the environment are worth the extra effort. And many of them tell us that they’ve seen a return of wildlife to their farms since they moved to organic production.”
In addition to environmental benefits, growers realize economic advantages. According to Daniel, the premium SFNTC pays its organic tobacco growers not only covers the additional labor requirements, but it also takes into account the risk factors and time and effort required to certify land for organic production.
As an increasing number of growers and consumers endorse organic tobacco, SFNTC has shown strong, steady growth. In 2013, SFNTC reported a $280 million
operating income, a hefty increase of about 18 percent from $237 million in 2012. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he says. “To create an organic finished product, everything must be approved by the USDA. It has to be certified from seed to stick. That means everything from processing, manufacturing, storage, receiving raw tobacco, farms and the products—all of those standards have to be met.”
Pest Control without Pesticides
While the rewards tied to growing organic tobacco seem great, the risks can be high too. Managing pests without the use of common insecticides is the No. 1 challenge organic tobacco growers face. That’s because there aren’t many proven substitutes for the common insecticides and pesticides used with traditional growing practices.
Clyde Sorenson, an entomology professor at North Carolina State University, has worked with
tobacco growers for 17 years. Sorenson says growers approach insecticide resources very differently today than they did 50 years ago. “With modern tobacco production, we try to implement integrated pest management as much as possible,” he says. That means reducing pest populations with a variety of available tools, including careful scouting and planning when it comes to timing, and implementing biological control strategies whenever possible.
“Today, we try to use pesticides as a last resort,” Sorenson says. “In the bad old days of the ’50s and ’60s, when we first had ready access to synthetic pesticides, we used them more than we needed to. Since then, we’ve come a lot further on how we use those materials.”
But for growers cultivating organic tobacco, synthetic pesticides are not part of the toolbox at all—even as a last resort. “If you’re trying to grow a crop like tobacco in organic production systems, you don’t have available the very useful insecticides that we use in conventional culture with the integrated pest management approach,” says Sorenson. “The few naturally derived insecticides you’re allowed in organic have to be approved by organic certification organizations.”
For Billy Carter, an Eagle Springs, N.C., grower who contracts with SFNTC, managing organically grown tobacco pests is all about strategy. “With organics, you’ve got to be thinking way ahead,” he says. “Unlike conventional production, you don’t have a bunch of tools that can come to the rescue when you get into a production problem. You have to be able to scrutinize your fields and anticipate issues like
To mitigate the impact of aphids, Carter’s most persistent pest problem, he intersperses sunflowers with his tobacco plants. “We plant eight rows of tobacco and then two rows of sunflowers,” he explains. “The sunflowers attract lady beetles, which are one of the aphids’ primary predators.”
To attract beneficial insects like predatory wasps (see page 10), Carter sows sudangrass and buckwheat in his field borders. “It’s not 100 percent effective, but again, it’s another proactive pest-control measure,” he says.
Longer crop rotation intervals also factor into Carter’s overall field plan. In addition to knocking back insect pests and weeds, crop rotation works wonders for disease control and soil health. “Every organic farm has a different approach,” says Carter. “You usually have three- and four-year rotations, but for the most part we’re at three.” After Carter grows a year of tobacco on his organic fields, he follows it with a crop of wheat. After the wheat is harvested, he spends the next year and a half rotating winter and summer crops in an effort to protect the land from nutrient leaching as well as wind and water erosion. “We’re also building soil matter for the next crop of tobacco,” he adds.