October freeze burns tobacco farmers in Surry County


Surry County tobacco farmers suffer losses

By Terri Flagg - tflagg@civitasmedia.com



Preston Cave, left and his father, Phillip Cave, survey a frostbitten field of organic tobacco planted by Preston Cave on a tract of land in Elkin. Summer drought and fall rains delayed the farmers’ ability to harvest the crop, which was ruined during a freeze Oct. 17 and 18.


Phillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.


Phillip Cave demonstrates how the stem of a frostbitten leaf of tobacco doesn’t break when bent like the healthy leaf above it and cannot be processed.


Phillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.


Phillip Cave, left and his son, Preston Cave, examine a field of frostbitten organic tobacco on a tract in Elkin. The Caves each experienced significant losses due to a freeze Oct. 17 and 18 ruined most of their tobacco crops. Summer drought and fall rains had delayed harvest of the crops.


DOBSON — Mother nature seemed to have conspired against Surry County tobacco farmers this year, with freezing temperatures Saturday and Sunday landing the final blow.

Phillip Cave, a fifth generation farmer who with his son, farms about 50 acres of tobacco in Elkin and Dobson, said the trouble leading up to an $80,000 loss started months ago.

“The whole story of this crop is extreme drought in May, June and July put the crop behind,” he said.

Then came October’s rain. From Sept. 25 to Oct. 4 the crop couldn’t be harvested.

“We had to sit in the house and watch the rain,” Cave said. “I could have gotten it done in three days.”

When the rain finally did stop, Cave got busy with the harvest.

“I heard the ice was coming,” Phillip Cave said. “I worked my hind end off.”

Laborers worked 17 hours that Saturday. Cave didn’t get home until 2:30 a.m.

“We don’t ever work crops on Sunday but we did this year,” he said.

Cave did get about 11,000 pounds of tobacco harvested before the temperature dropped.

The rest? “It’s ruined,” Cave said.

“Tobacco can handle a frost. It can’t handle a freeze.”

The frostbitten leaves won’t cure correctly. “They won’t take the heat, it won’t yellow,” he said.

The stems bend instead of breaking, which means they can’t be separated from the leaves during processing.

“You can’t hide it,” he said.

Insurance issues

Cave wasn’t the only farmer to be affected by the cold snap.

“We have had several losses reported,” said John Petree, owner of Foothills Insurance, a crop insurance agency based in Rural Hall.

But Cave’s extra work harvesting the crop may hurt him.

Although about six miles separate the tracts of land where Cave had harvested the tobacco before the frost and where it remained exposed in the field, they are listed under the farm serial number with the Farm Service Agency and so are considered one farm for insurance purposes.

Cave couldn’t claim a loss.

“I missed the whole state fair and still lost 70-80 thousand dollars,” Cave said, noting that he missed out on watching his kids show cattle — and his Hereford bull be named grand champion.

Low demand, low prices

When the farmer got his harvest to market, the tobacco company gave Cave a lower grade than he thought it was worth, offering him $1.40 a pound instead of about $2 per pound.

“That’s not a fair price,” he said, blaming markets so flooded by low demand and an increase in foreign imports with making tobacco companies unable to pay a fair price for their contracts. And so, the buyers are assigning lower grades to higher quality tobacco as a way to drive the already low price down further.

Demand was so low at the beginning of the season that Cave’s son, Preston, could not even get a contract to grow conventional tobacco.

Preston Cave, a December 2014 graduate of N.C. State University, chose to grow organic tobacco for his first crop.

Along with the higher demand and higher price for organic tobacco comes more work — and greater risk.

With his crop also uninsured, “I lost about $8,000 Monday morning,” said Cave, who is getting married on Nov. 7.

The year hadn’t been a good one for the Caves’ farming operation as a whole.

Phillip Cave said his laying hens were picked up three weeks early, and that the drought hurt other crops such as corn and soybeans.

“I don’t even want to walk into the soybean field,” he said.

Preston said Brazil opening its markets to exports has driven cattle prices down as well as tobacco.

But with the debt ratio lower on tobacco, that loss hurt the most.

“Tobacco pays the bills,” Phillip Cave said. “It didn’t this year.”

Admittedly still in shock from the frost loss, Phillip Cave said, “I’m thinking about selling. I didn’t tell him that yet,” pointing to his son.

Preston Cave said he didn’t know if he would continue to farm the crop.

“Do you stay here and take losses for four or five years or try to move on to something else?” The father and son had planned long term to use tobacco profits to expand their cattle operation.

“That’s what we both love to do,” he said.

Phillip Cave said, “We both love growing tobacco too. But not this year.”

“There’s no guarantees in farming,” Preston Cave said. “We’re just gamblers. Gambling to feed the world.”

Preston Cave, left and his father, Phillip Cave, survey a frostbitten field of organic tobacco planted by Preston Cave on a tract of land in Elkin. Summer drought and fall rains delayed the farmers’ ability to harvest the crop, which was ruined during a freeze Oct. 17 and 18.
http://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/web1_151021_Freeze_Tobacco_1.jpgPreston Cave, left and his father, Phillip Cave, survey a frostbitten field of organic tobacco planted by Preston Cave on a tract of land in Elkin. Summer drought and fall rains delayed the farmers’ ability to harvest the crop, which was ruined during a freeze Oct. 17 and 18.

Phillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.
http://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/web1_151021_Freeze_Tobacco_2.jpgPhillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.

Phillip Cave demonstrates how the stem of a frostbitten leaf of tobacco doesn’t break when bent like the healthy leaf above it and cannot be processed.
http://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/web1_151021_Freeze_Tobacco_3.jpgPhillip Cave demonstrates how the stem of a frostbitten leaf of tobacco doesn’t break when bent like the healthy leaf above it and cannot be processed.

Phillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.
http://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/web1_151021_Freeze_Tobacco_4.jpgPhillip Cave examines a frostbitten leaf of tobacco. The bronze colored areas of the leaf will not cure properly.

Phillip Cave, left and his son, Preston Cave, examine a field of frostbitten organic tobacco on a tract in Elkin. The Caves each experienced significant losses due to a freeze Oct. 17 and 18 ruined most of their tobacco crops. Summer drought and fall rains had delayed harvest of the crops.
http://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/web1_151021_Freeze_Tobacco_5.jpgPhillip Cave, left and his son, Preston Cave, examine a field of frostbitten organic tobacco on a tract in Elkin. The Caves each experienced significant losses due to a freeze Oct. 17 and 18 ruined most of their tobacco crops. Summer drought and fall rains had delayed harvest of the crops.
Surry County tobacco farmers suffer losses

By Terri Flagg

tflagg@civitasmedia.com

Terri Flagg can be reached at 415-4734.

Terri Flagg can be reached at 415-4734.

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