Written & Photographed by: Claudia Stack
Travel southwest on Highway 17 from Wilmington into Brunswick County about 50 miles, until the chain stores give way to farm stands, and you will be in the vicinity of Ocean Isle Beach. The name conjures images of vacationers enjoying the surf, but just a few miles inland Grissett family members work the same fields that their family has farmed for five generations. Managing tobacco, soybeans, corn, and hogs creates a demanding work schedule that consumes every season of the year. However, Wayne Grissett and his son William are patient and gracious as they show visitors around their farm operation. They exude a quiet pride, quite understandable when one sees the high quality of their crops and livestock, all produced with minimal chemical inputs.
In 2014 the federal government wrapped up a ten year program using tax money from manufacturers of tobacco products to buy out tobacco production quotas. These quotas, in place since the 1930s, used to govern how much tobacco could be produced on a certain piece of land. The shift away from production controls and price supports had a major impact on North Carolina. Our state still leads the nation in production of flue-cured (golden leaf) tobacco, producing approximately three-fourths of the nation’s total. However, reflecting a nationwide trend, the number of farmers growing tobacco has dropped sharply. Local extension agents say there are fewer than five tobacco farms in Brunswick and Pender Counties combined.
W.W. Grissett Farm is one of them.
“It used to be, if you could drive a mule, you could grow tobacco,” Wayne says with a hint of a smile. He is standing in his farm office surrounded by record books and framed certificates that document the many continuing education courses he and and his son have completed. They enjoy growing tobacco for Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (SFNTC), which was founded in 1982 with a vision of using sustainably produced tobacco to make their products. Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) became SFNTC’s parent company in 2002, and they continue the commitment to sustainability. For example, SFNTC’s production facility in Oxford, NC achieved a goal of zero waste in 2013.
For the Grissetts and other farmers who grow its tobacco, SFNTC’s emphasis on sustainability means continuous education, working closely with the company agronomist, and doing frequent soil and water quality testing. As four generations of Grissetts live within a few square miles, they are directly impacted by the practices they and neighboring farms employ, and they appreciate the company’s insistence on good stewardship. Gone are the days, Wayne says, when a farmer might lime his land or fertilize his crop a set number of times each year. Now nothing is done without careful testing. The sixty acres of tobacco that the Grissetts tend is rated “purity residue clean (PRC),” one step below organic. According to the RAI website, the “PRC program reduces the use of synthetic and restricted-use agrochemicals. Both the organic and the PRC programs have significant environmental benefit over traditional tobacco farming, and earn the farmers premium prices for their leaf.”
Although a specialized machine has replaced humans for picking the tobacco, the plant leaves still mature from the bottom up, meaning the same field will be harvested multiple times from late August through the fall. The leaves are packed into modern curing barns, which bear more resemblance to shipping containers than to the old tall tobacco barns where generations of North Carolina farm children hung tobacco tied onto sticks. The new barns have automated heat and moisture sensors. It takes seven to ten days to cure the tobacco. The top leaves, or “tips” of the plant, are the most valuable and one curing barn holds approximately 3,000 pounds of tips.
Raising tobacco in accordance with PRC standards takes a lot of time and effort. For example, they still “sucker” the tobacco as in the old days, cutting the flowers off the plants every week or so. There is a spray that inhibits this growth, but using the spray doesn’t fit within the PRC protocol. Along the same lines, William chose not to use the newest hybrid soybean this year because the herbicide that one is supposed to use on it might drift and affect his other crops.
The price of entry for new farmers, particularly for farming a crop as demanding as tobacco, is high. Wayne estimates that new equipment to set up a farm could cost as much as five million dollars. In actual practice making do, and community connections, usually play a big part in farming. Wayne and William know just who to call when they need specialized help. They do most of the repairs on their own equipment, searching out used parts for machines that companies stopped making decades ago. In some of his rare downtime, Wayne also restored a horse drawn hay rake used by his grandfather, showing that memories can attach to land and equipment alike.
“When you mess with something your whole life, you get used to it,” Waynes reflects. He first started working in tobacco fifty-six years ago. At age four he began by driving the mule that pulled the tobacco sled full of freshly harvested leaves. Now at age sixty, he says perhaps he’ll retire after a full seventy-five years of working in tobacco. He may retire, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll stray far from the fields and barns that have shaped his family’s life for five generations.