Before poultry took the top spot, tobacco was king in South Carolina.
“In 1928, South Carolina grew 148,000 acres of tobacco. We grew 14,500 acres in 2013,” says Tré Coleman, executive director for the South Carolina Tobacco Board. “Tobacco was the number one cash crop up until the 1980s, when broiler production increased in the state.”
Although it has since dropped out of the top 10 commodities, tobacco is still an extremely profitable crop for the Palmetto State, bringing in more than $60 million per year, according to Coleman.
Neal Baxley has been a tobacco farmer for as long as he can remember. The Marion County farmer, who grows flue-cured tobacco, says that the industry has changed substantially in the past decade.
“I can remember when there were a lot of new farmers, and now there are only about six in my county. I think that decrease is reflective statewide,” he says.
Two of the main challenges tobacco farmers face are aging infrastructure and a loss of labor. Baxley says that he has had to make the choice to update his tobacco barns with insulation, which can prove to be pretty costly. He has also done whatever he can to reduce hand labor, such as moving to automated machines that help with harvest.
Coleman says that issues like increased taxes and public smoking bans have added to challenges for the state’s tobacco farmers. Just last year, the federal government collected $14.5 billion in taxes, and states collected $17 billion on tobacco.
Still, there is promise for South Carolina’s tobacco industry in the export market. Both Coleman and Baxley agree that the U.S. grows the best tobacco product in terms of quality and flavor. Baxley says that China, other Asian countries and eastern Europe have become major consumers of tobacco, which could lead to increased demand of the high-quality tobacco grown in South Carolina.