Lessons From Tobacco

March 09, 2022 | Written by: sanford-user

By Bob Joyce, Senior Director, Business Retention and Expansion

In an article last week in the N&O, writer Martha Quillen (who lives in Sanford) put together a great story about what was once North Carolina’s biggest crop – tobacco.

Tobacco put North Carolina on the map, especially central and eastern NC where “bright leaf” tobacco, prized for its quality and flavor, was grown. For most of the past century, tobacco was our key farm product, providing vital income for thousands of small family farms.

Martha’s reporting points out that tobacco’s impact on our economy is now a mere fraction of what it was just 50 years ago.

My own family came to Sanford in the early 1920s because of tobacco. My grandfather was a buyer for Liggett and Myers, traveling out to the eastern flue-cured markets and western burley markets. In the 1930s, he began working for Austin Company; building a warehouse and small redrying plant on Steele Street (now the home of Sloan Motor Company). Just after WW II, Sanford Tobacco Company moved to a large brick factory on Wicker Street, eventually becoming one of the largest employers in the county before closing permanently in the early 1970s.

As Martha’s article conveys, it wasn’t just farmers who relied on the crop. “In rural North Carolina, a summer spent working tobacco was a hard but instructive first job that could pay for a secondhand car or college tuition. Retailers who sold seed, fertilizer and farm equipment were in business to supply the farmers, who also supported clothing and furniture stores and car dealers.”

The story of the decline of tobacco is familiar to everyone. (Today, we call these events “market disruptions”.) In 1964, the Surgeon General said tobacco caused cancer. Consumption declined. The price support program ended. In 2018, the Trump Administration’s trade policies prompted China to stop buying American tobacco. Martha’s article points out that although a trade deal with China was renewed in 2020, the damage was done. China had found other, cheaper markets.

Today, North Carolina has only about 1300 tobacco farms. The cash value of the tobacco crop is a fraction of the agriculture economy. Broilers, hogs, and turkeys are the largest cash generators for our state’s farmers. In row crops, soy beans and corn bring in more dollars than tobacco. Sweet potatoes and cotton are close behind in value.

Fifty years ago, tobacco was king; now, it appears to be headed to oblivion. So, what lessons can we learn from tobacco’s decline? What are the market disruptions of today telling us about the economy of Lee County the future? We all know what the internet has done to big box retailing, stock trading and the real estate business.

Artificial intelligence is changing manufacturing. Gene therapy is revolutionizing the pharmaceutical business. EV technology and digitization are transforming the car business. Nanotechnology and quantum computing are being called the Sixth Industrial Revolution (we’re currently in the fourth, according to scholars who study these things).

At SAGA, the future for Lee County looks really bright to us. We are well positioned to attract these new industries – some are already here. Our current task is to find, attract and train the employees for these cutting-edge industries!