The opening of the market this year saw more tobacco on the warehouse floor for sale than on the first sale day last year. As has been the case almost every year in the past decade, most of the tobacco offered for sale on opening day was "old crop" tobacco.
In recent years there were considerably fewer buyers on the auction line than when the auction markets were in their heyday.
According to Bladen County Farm Services Director Thomas "Chubby" Starling, the New Clarkton sold 64,500 pounds for $123,860.84, for an average of $192.03 per pound.
However, much of the tobacco in that warehouse was "no saled," said Starling. Warehouse owner Lawrence McDougald said just before the sale that he had about 210,000 pounds on the floor for sale. McDougald said after the sale that he was not satisfied with the bids the buyers were offering for much of the tobacco.
At the Bright Leaf Warehouse, 173,098 pounds sold for $333,983.91, for an average of $192.95. Most of it was purchased by Philip Morris, with Export, Diamond and Standard buying smaller amounts.
Bright Leaf Operator Milton Macon said the "house" bought less than 10 percent of the leaf on the floor and that the Flue-cured tobacco co-op bought less than five percent. Most of the top grades sold for $1.94 per pound, with a few bales selling for $1.95.
"I was well pleased with our sale today," said Macon.
Very little new crop tobacco was available for sale at either the New Clarkton or Bright Leaf warehouse. And judging by what area farmers were saying at the sale, it will likely be late August before a significant amount of this year's crop is available for sale.
Most fields across the county had not yet been cropped for the first time by midweek, and some farmers at the sale indicated that it could be two more weeks before their tobacco is ready for curing. Most blamed the late crop on the drought, which held up development of the plants during the prime growing season.
The rains of the past three weeks have been very beneficial in maturing the crop, but much of the tobacco has not begun to ripen and farmers are very reluctant to take any chances on harvesting it before it is ready.
Buying companies have made it clear in recent years that they will not purchase "green" tobacco (tobacco that is harvested before it is ready). One Pender County farmer at the sale said one company had even sent letters to producers stating their intention not to purchase any "green" tobacco.
Some farmers expressed some concern about how much "body" (thickness) the leaves would have because they did not mature until late. However, they expressed hope that the extreme heat might serve to add body to the leaves.
For nearly 90 years, the opening of the tobacco market has held special significance in tobacco country. But in recent years, continuing pressure on the industry combined with changes in the way the crop is marketed has led to the decline of the auction markets across the state.
Both warehouses in Clarkton are operating again this year despite mass closings of tobacco auction houses across the tobacco belts. And according to the operators of the two houses, both should have relatively good years despite the decline in auctions throughout the industry.
One reason both houses have been able to continue operating despite the closing of so many warehouses across the state is the relatively low percentage of Bladen tobacco that has been contracted directly to manufacturers.
Bladen County FSA Director Starling says that only about 48 percent of Bladen's crop has been contracted for direct sale to the manufacturers. Fifty-two percent has been designated for sale in auction houses.
According to official sources, Bladen has the lowest percentage of contracted tobacco in the state. In many of the prime tobacco-growing counties, as much as 90 percent of the crop is being grown under contract.
"Bladen farmers have designated (for auction sale) 3,158,219 pounds," Starling said. "Our houses will also have some out-of-county designations, possibly more than in previous years because of the number of houses that have closed."
Starling says he expects the amount of tobacco designated at the two warehouses to increase when the re-designation period gets underway.
The decline of the tobacco auction markets has been blamed primarily on two factors-reductions in allotments and the advent of direct marketing to the manufacturers.
Though quota increased about six percent this year, it had decreased by nearly 50 percent in the previous four years.
The prime reason for the decline in the auction markets, however, has been blamed on the direct purchasing (contracting) of tobacco by manufacturers and other buying companies.
The tobacco auction of the past 100 years is fast becoming a part of the area's history.
Old tobacco warehouses that at one time were the center of activity and commerce during marketing season in the rural tobacco growing areas of the state, now stand empty and idle.
In neighboring Columbus County where at one time 25 or more warehouses operated, only four houses were in business when the market opened there on Tuesday. In Whiteville, where 15 warehouses once operated, only two are running auctions this year.
Though the market schedule for the Border Belt still shows the Clarkton and Chadbourn markets together, Chadbourn's last warehouse closed its doors at the end of last season.
The closure of warehouses throughout the tobacco-growing areas of the state could help the local market, at least in the short run. Some farmers, who likely would have marketed their tobacco closer to home, will likely be selling on the Clarkton market because warehouses in their area have closed.
Frank Kornegay, a large-scale tobacco farmer from Princeton in Johnston County, had 60,000 pounds of tobacco on the floor at the Bright Leaf on Wednesday. Kornegay said he had grown all of his more than 250 acres of tobacco under contract last year, but had elected to designate about half of it to the auction market this year.
Kornegay said he had about 210,000 pounds of "old crop" tobacco left over from last year and would be selling it within the next few weeks. He has designated his tobacco at the Bright Leaf Warehouse this year.
Paul Rivenbark, who farms 21 acres of tobacco north of Burgaw, said he has sold on the Clarkton market for several years.
Joan Ward, whose family farms tobacco in Columbus and Bladen County, said her family also has part of their crop under contract and part designated at the New Clarkton Warehouse.
Though most of the farmers seemed optimistic about their tobacco this season and about the market, some expressed fears that the auction markets could not hold out much longer.