As fall approaches, Lancaster farmers are busy harvesting one of the leading crops in the county: tobacco, which will be sold to makers of cigar wrappers, filling, chew and cigarettes.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Lancaster County is home to 946 tobacco operations, and leads Pennsylvania with 70 percent of the state’s 10,000 acres of tobacco.
Nationally, the county is ranked in the top 10 in several measures. It is first in number of operations, eighth in sales, ninth in pounds of production and 10th in acres harvested.
A brief history
Although the cigarette market is declining nationally, the international market is growing, especially in Europe and China, according to Jeffrey S. Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomy educator in Lancaster. European buyers have an interest in organic tobacco and high-quality crops.
According to Graybill, organic tobacco draws a higher price.
A lot of chewing tobacco heads to the southern U.S. Certain grades of high-quality leaves are exported to cigar manufacturers in Central America or the Dominican Republic, according to Tom Stephenson, vice president and CFO for Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co.
Statewide, close to 10,000 acres of tobacco are grown today. In Lancaster County alone, tobacco grows on 7,000 acres, which generate 16.4 million pounds and $30 million in sales.
Three types of tobacco are grown in Lancaster County, according to Jeffrey S. Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomy educator in Lancaster. There is Pennsylvania Type 41 tobacco, which is used for cigar wrappers, and Maryland 609 tobacco, which is used as filler. Also in the last 10 years, the growth of burley tobacco for cigarettes has increased.
In 2004, a federal program regulating production and prices was lifted after 66 years, and many tobacco farmers in the South stopped growing burley tobacco for fear prices would collapse. Since then, demand for tobacco increased, and Amish and Mennonite farmers here started to grow it.
“I would say almost half of what we grow now is the burley type,” Graybill said.
There was a time when the tobacco industry nearly plummeted. In the 1950s and ’60s, close to 20,000 acres of tobacco were grown in Pennsylvania, and in the 1980s and ’90s it dropped, hitting roughly 5,200 acres in 2000. Today, there are 10,000 acres.
“It’s slowly coming back again,” Graybill said.
The tobacco business
A fourth-generation farmer in Strasburg whose family has owned the Welk Pride Farm since 1919 hasn’t made the switch. Don Welk Jr. grows Type 41 tobacco and a less-common type called Green River One-Sucker, which is used for specific brands of snuff and chewing tobacco.