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Going Green

June 16, 2015 |

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Prepping the Land
According to Daniel, the first hurdle in cultivating organic tobacco presents itself before growers sow their first seed. Land originally used for conventional production—growing crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides—must be free of any production agents banned in organic production for three years before its crop is considered organic. “That means that unless they are fortunate enough to find farmland that has not been in production for three or four years, tobacco farmers switching to organic growing have to grow their crops as if they were organic for three years before they can actually have crops from those fields certified,” says Daniel.
For that reason, many growers start small. Whereas organic tobacco now makes up 70 percent of Carter’s 270 tobacco acres, he started out with just 3 percent. “We wanted to take a total view of how we managed our farm, and we were interested in growing organic tobacco,” he says. “So we started with just a few acres to learn.”
Carter adds that converting to organic can be a drawn-out process because of the administrative
burden. “There’s a lot of paperwork and documentation involved with getting your land certified, and rightfully so. It shouldn’t be something you just casually approach,” he says.
Since it costs more to grow tobacco organically, Daniel says that SFNTC pays those farmers more money for those transitional crops grown before the first three years have passed, even though they can’t be certified as organic. “We have two growing programs at Santa Fe Natural. Organic is one; the other is an in-house program that we call PRC, which stands for Pesticide Residue Clean. PRC tobacco doesn’t qualify as organic, but it’s produced using a minimal amount of chemicals, so the leaf that comes from those fields has very little, if any, detectable residues from chemical crop production agents,” Daniel says. “That’s another way that we demonstrate our strong commitment to operating our business in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.”

Sucker Control
Both organic and traditional growers know sucker control is an ongoing battle. An increasing number of manufacturers either place a premium on tobacco grown without maleic hydrazide (MH) or make MH-absent tobacco a requirement. Because of this, all growers are taking notes on how they might survive without their go-to chemical for sucker control.
SFNTC is at the forefront of this MH-free effort, says Daniel, who explains that there wasn’t a good way to eliminate suckers from organic tobacco until just a few years ago. “Farmers had to apply vegetable oil by hand to eliminate the emerging suckers, which was incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming. So we set off to find a solution, and we did.”
The company teamed up with Fair Products Inc., an agribusiness based in Cary, N.C., to develop O-TAC™ Plant Control Agent, a natural fatty alcohol made from palm oil that growers can spray to eliminate suckers from their organic tobacco. “We provide this suckercide at cost to organic tobacco growers and PRC farmers who grow tobacco using sustainable practices that we purchase,” Daniel says.
Carter finds the new fatty alcohol contact product to be a big help but isn’t convinced that it replaces the ease of using MH for sucker control. “It was a big step forward in organic production, but you still don’t get anything like the efficacy of the MH product,” he says. “You still have to do a lot of it by hand—and you have to do it fairly often.”

Long-term Gains
Carter sowed his first three acres of organic tobacco 15 years ago. While quality improvements and efficiency gains are undeniable, the real benefits he’s recognized are just as sustainable as the crop itself. “Beyond being profitable, it’s allowed us to expand our farming operation not only in the area of organics but other areas as well,” Carter says. “It forces me to think more deeply about what I’m doing and take a long-term view of how each action will have a corresponding reaction at some point.”
As a result, Carter finds himself incorporating some aspects of what he’s learned from organic production into his conventional fields. “You need longer rotations with crops that complement each other to build organic matter and to control pests. You need to look at your fields on an individual basis when determining how to approach your fertility,” says Carter. “Whether or not you’re 100 percent organic, when you stop approaching your production practices as ‘one size fits all,’ you increase your yield and your quality.”

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