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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with G. Sherwood Stewart, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0194. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of shift from auctioneering to contract sales on tobacco industry

Stewart addresses changes in the sale of tobacco at the time of the interview in 2002. Stewart had just retired as an auctioneer the year before, arguing that his decision was in part fueled by the growing tendency of farmers to sell their tobacco via contract rather than at auction. Stewart ruminates here about the potential impact on the tobacco industry as this transition became more complete. Having accepted a job examining tobacco for "foreign material," Stewart suggests that the changing means of sale could affect the quality of tobacco. Additionally, he suggests that changing methods of packaging tobacco, such as baling, could result in the production of lower quality tobacco.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with G. Sherwood Stewart, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0194. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
No. I'm not doing it now. Last year was my last year selling tobacco. Not because I wanted to. I knew I was getting close to the time that I could retire. But, it's the time that they started contracting. I probably could've hung over a few little sales, but it wasn't enough. I just stepped out of it. It mean, it was more easier for me to step out than it was for some younger guys. You know, they're thirty-five, forty years old—ain't old enough to draw social security. We didn't have retirement. We don't have all that stuff. As far as being a tobacco auctioneer, I don't have any ill will against the companies or farmers, either one. The companies drawed a contract. The farmer made the choice. If it's better for him to contract, then I understand. He can get more money out of a contract than [if] he is under auction. If the auction would give him more money, then I say he's a fool to sell under contract. That's the way it is. Now what's going to continue after the tobacco auction is gone? I don't know.
SALLY PETERSON:
I guess I'm curious about what it will do to perceptions of quality.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Quality—. Well, I think, really and truly, that's what the company can do, is trying to be closer to the farmer under contract to produce a better quality tobacco and foreign matter free. In fact, I'm with a company now. I'm with Universal Lee [League?]. My job is looking for foreign matter in tobacco. They call me a NTRM specialist. That is, non-tobacco related material. There's a lot in there.
SALLY PETERSON:
Is there really?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yes, sir. They—. Yes, ma'am.
SALLY PETERSON:
Is that because of the mechanization now?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yeah, a lot of it is mechanization. A lot of it, I assume, they don't care. They just dump anything in there. I find a whole lot of it. Now they are recording and checking it out if the farmers have got it in it. [There is] more than I really thought was in it, 'til I got in this job looking at it. That's what I do now.
SALLY PETERSON:
But when it was all out on the floor in piles, that would just be so obvious.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
It was in it then.
SALLY PETERSON:
It was in it then to the same degree, do you think?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Well, not as much, because they sold more tobacco in the sheets. But they did put it in there. It got in there. But then the company had a right to reject it on the floor. But somehow, enough of it didn't get rejected all the time, you know. Then they went to bale tobacco. There's no person, in the world, that can stand there, and look at a pile, a bale — a eight hundred pound bale of tobacco — and tell what's inside of it. I tried telling people that. You can't. You can bust it open or the man who packed it, he can tell what's in it.
SALLY PETERSON:
So, how would you salt something because you'd want the outside to look solid?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Right.
SALLY PETERSON:
And it goes through a baler, right? So you'd have to feed it into the baling machine, or something?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yeah, but there's a way you can put the stuff in the middle. I'll tell you something that happened this year. [Was] a lot of this tobacco dry weather tobacco this year? It's hard to judge it in bales because them balers leave the tails of tobacco out, and the stems in. A lot of it looks good, and the bale gummies it up, it's green halfway to the leaf that you don't see in them bales. That's one thing, the pile of tobacco looks good outside, but when you open it up, it's half is green. It's a bad crop this year. We've got a mean tobacco crop.
SALLY PETERSON:
You think—. Is that [because of] the drought?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Drought — that's right, a lot of it. There's a lot of farmers farming tobacco out there that don't look at it. They've been around for years and years. When I was auctioning tobacco, you run into the farmers that really took care of it and looked at it. They had good tobacco, all the time. You had the same farmers just about every year that had bad tobacco. They're going to have bad tobacco. It don't make no difference, they just know how to mess it up. I mean, they don't take the pride in—.
SALLY PETERSON:
But they get different prices for their tobacco?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yeah. Well, they have in the past.
SALLY PETERSON:
They have in the past, but with this contracting—?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
[With] this contracting, they want the same thing the others get. I don't know how, what's going to keep on going. You always had the price support system to go back to, which you don't have that under contract with the company. They are turning down some of these tobacco contractors now. Turned down a lot of them on the auction market, because it's not good. But the auction system was put in—. I think baling it up in big bales hurt the auction system because you can't, don't even looking at it, you know.
SALLY PETERSON:
Well, how does it get inspected if it's baled?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Well, the government graders grade it and inspect it. Just like I said a few minutes ago, there's nobody here. He grades it the way it looks in them bales.
SALLY PETERSON:
Just in the bales.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
But he don't see everything that's in it. But the farmer's not supposed to put it that way.