Hometown: Roxboro, NC
Size of Operation: 25 acres
Years in Business: 4
Years Working with Farm Credit: 4
For young farmer Bradsher Wilkins, growing tobacco is almost as manual a process as in the past: seeds are planted by hand in the greenhouse, seedlings are hand-transplanted in the fields, and harvest is managed with the toil of seasonal labor. Larger farms, of course, are more mechanized, but with just 25 of his own acres in tobacco and another 35 or 40 of his father’s, all which they work together, the investment in equipment wouldn’t pay off.
Instead, Bradsher has looked for other ways to increase his revenues. He’s planted 15 acres of organic tobacco, a product that is in demand and commands a premium. “There’s a financial incentive to grow organic,” says Bradsher. “If you do it right and get top grade leaves, you can earn twice as much.” Of course, he adds, it’s hard to grow those top-grade leaves, and yields are much lower because of the types of slow-release fertilizers that can be used on organic land.
Once tobacco leaves are harvested, they’re brought the same day to one of 11 curing houses on the Wilkins' land. When the cured tobacco is ready, it’s sold to two companies, one for the organic leaves and one for the conventional. Both are used to make cigarettes, with most of the demand coming from Europe and China. Once the tobacco is harvested, the conventional land is planted with wheat and then soybeans the next year, to be planted in tobacco again the year after; the organic land is rotated with organic hay.
Another new venture aimed to capitalize on market demand is raising hops, a crop that’s sought after by the growing number of micro-breweries. Bradsher will be planting hops rhizomes in early 2015, hoping to plant an acre but dependent upon how many rhizomes he’s able to buy. “We have to buy them fresh and plant them immediately,” Bradsher says.
Hops are a perennial plant, so it will also be less labor intensive than his tobacco acres, which he says couldn’t be managed without the help of seasonal, migrant labor. “I’d like to have a self-contained farm my family and I can manage ourselves and still be profitable,” Bradsher says. “It’s also just good to diversify.”
After growing up on his family’s farm, Bradsher studied plant and soil science at North Carolina State University. His college career was interrupted by the tragedy of 9/11, which sparked him to join the Army. After four years, including one tour in Iraq, he returned to school and then to the family farm.
“I enjoy the lifestyle, and I want to raise my family on the farm like I was,” Bradsher says, adding, “It’s a good way to live.”
When Bradsher started his own farm, he also initiated his relationship with Carolina Farm Credit, with which his father already worked. Bradsher appreciates the ease of doing business with them, and their understanding of the nature of agriculture and his industry. “My loan officer knows exactly what I’m talking about,” he says. “She grew up on a tobacco farm, too.”
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