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Eastern Tobacco Belt Opens; Early Indications Please Farmers

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SMITHFIELD — Marked by sweltering heat, the song of the auctioneer and the anxious eyes of farmers, the Eastern Belt tobacco auction season opened Wednesday morning.

North Carolina is one of the largest flue-cured tobacco growing regions in the world, and the money generated from sales ripple across the economy of the region.

Good demand and prices may ease farmers tensions for awhile, but this year, changes and uncertainty swirl around the industry.

Large cuts in the amount of tobacco that growers can sell and direct-contract sales may soon replace the tradition of the open-cry auctions.

"It is a hard situation, and I think we lost 16 or 18 warehouses this year and several markets in towns," says Frank Lee, a Smithfield tobacco warehouse owner. "That hurts us politically. By not having a whole town, you've lost a lot of politics."

Lee and nearly everyone in the tobacco industry can see the handwriting on the wall.

"But I think as it progresses along, you know, there's going to be a whole lot more changes coming in the next year," Lee says.

N.C. Agriculture CommissonerJim Graham has been at the opening day of sales for decades. He watched this time -- as the two candidates vying for his job stumped with farmers.

Wednesday's prices and demand were seen as good, with most farmers basically pleased with the first day of the season.


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