WILSON, N.C. — Less than 10 years ago, North Carolina had more than 100 tobacco warehouses. Now, that number is down to a handful.
According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Wake County is the seventh-largest tobacco-producing county in the state. Pitt County, home of Greenville, is No. 1.
Wednesday, the market opened in Wilson -- the town that used to be the center of the tobacco universe.
Wilson County was once the largest market in the world, with more than 12 warehouses. This year, there is just one open for business, and only a co-op is interested.
"It's very depressing," farmer Greg Hipp said. "The stabililization is buying most of it. The companies are not buying any."
The first three bales of tobacco sold for $155 per hundredweight, the support price. That meant the tobacco will go under loan to the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp.
The fourth bale sold for $1 more per hundredweight.
Hipp said the first auction of the year used to be the highlight in Wilson. It was the day farmers began seeing big returns on their crop.
This year, returns are slow.
Hipp, from Harnett County, was selling about 15,000 pounds of tobacco Tuesday.
"It's going to be pretty tough," Hipp said.
This year's auction brought out many politicians and many conversations about the tobacco buyout.
"To have one warehouse operating today is somewhat sad," Rep. G.K. Butterfield said. "But the government has a responsibility to deal with the crisis our farmers are facing."
Said Rep. Walter Jones: "We're more optimistic. But I would use the words 'cautiously optimistic'.
"This is the furthest that we've ever been in trying to reach a tobacco buyout."
Both congressmen said legislation that would end the decades-old system of tobacco quotas still has a long road ahead.
"I hope and pray every night for the buyout," Hipp said.
Kenneth Kelly, sales manager for Liberty Warehouse, said that in more than 20 years of being in the tobacco business, this was the most uncertain time he has witnessed.
"It's never been like this," he said. "No one knows which way to turn."
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who also attended the opening day, said farmers could see as much as a 30-percent quota cut in December if they don't get a buyout.
"That would put us in deep trouble," he said.
Although there is a good chance Congress will authorize a buyout, Etheridge said it is still a long way away.
"We can't afford to fail this year," he said. "If we do, I don't think we will have the chance next year."