MOULTRIE -- Local tobacco growers are split on whether they need federal graders involved in contract sales to cigarette companies.

Graders are already involved in auction sales, but tobacco growers will get to vote this spring on whether they want them present at all sales, including direct contract sales.

Federal graders set minimum prices for the tobacco they grade in an effort to keep buyers from offering an unreasonably low price for the crop.

And with auction sales happening less and less now -- two auction warehouses closed in Moultrie this year -- some growers are calling louder than ever for the price support that federal graders can give.

Not all growers, however, think having federal graders at all sales is such a good thing.

Doerun grower Ray Saunders doesn't see an advantage to having federal growers at direct contract sales, but, he said, "I think you need government graders on the (auction) market."

According to Saunders, larger cigarette manufacturers don't usually pay much attention to the federal grades on tobacco anyway. In some cases, Saunders said, the cigarette companies will actually pay above the federal grade for tobacco.

The reason Saunders said federal graders wouldn't be much help in direct contract sales is because the government charges one cent per pound to grade tobacco, a charge that is unjustified since the federal employees can't buy the tobacco.

Berlin grower Louis Perry likes the idea of having federal graders at direct contract sales, saying that having federal graders would offer "a uniform way of grading tobacco."

In direct contract sales, the companies vying for the tobacco have their own graders on hand, creating differing grading scales and grading factors.

Traditionally, federal graders look at the leaf's color, texture, and position on the stalk before giving the crop a grade. A golden leaf found on or near the middle of the stalk are best. Leaves found near the bottom, "sand lugs," are considered the least appealing.

Perry said he believes that leaving direct contract sales grading to cigarette company graders favors the buyer over the seller.

"If I was a seller, I'd want (my tobacco) to grade higher," Perry said, "and if I was a buyer, I'd want it to grade lower." A lower grade would make the price less.

Perry doesn't think cigarette manufacturer graders are purposefully under-grading the tobacco to drive the price down, but he said, "unintentionally they are."

Philip Morris spokeswoman Kim Farlow would disagree with Perry. In an article from the Associated Press, Farlow was quoted as saying that her company feels "our own employees best know what we need to make our products."

No matter their take on federal growers at direct contract sales, not all growers will be eligible to vote on the referendum. Only the growers eligible for federal price supports, or about 500,000 growers, will be able to vote.

-- By Mitch Kimbrell

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