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Tobacco Road Leads to Oxford

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OXFORD — The uncertain future for tobacco hasn't slowed the state's newest manufacturer. The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company plans on doing more than just blowing smoke. They won't say their cigarettes are safe, but they do say they contain no chemical additives.

The looming tobacco settlement, a declining number of smokers and a possible end to the government price-support program. Trouble on tobacco road? Not in Oxford.

At a time when everyone from farmers to fertilizer dealers have doubts about the future of the golden leaf, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company is lighting up the manufacturing process.

A small operation started 18 months ago. Now there are 70 employees and a $1.3 million dollar payroll. The CEO is leading the charge in these doubtful tobacco times. He says they'll make it, because they're different. "We can sell to local stores," explains CEO Robin Sommers. "We've marketed differently. We've strictly prohibited sales to minors, vending machine sales and sports sponsorship. There's no mass market advertising."

Away from the whir of the machinery at the new cigarette plant, Gene Clarke is getting out of the tobacco business after half a century. His outlook differs drastically from the new company in town. He believes profitability for a small farmer in the future just isn't good.

Old timers are getting out of it. Newcomers are getting into it. The next couple of years will tell who's going in the right direction. One direction Santa Fe is going in is overseas.

A lot of their product is headed for Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.