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The growing of tobacco is becoming annually more important in Florida, particularly in the northwestern part of the state. Both sun and shade tobaccos are now grown in Florida, the chief producing sections being the counties of Western Florida, particularly Madison and Gadsen, whose capital, Quincy, saw the birth and has always been the chief center of the industry.
Tobacco growing has been carried on in Florida for many years. Long before the Civil War, Quincy grew a great deal of what was known as speckled leaf tobacco a sun variety grown on hammock land. This tobacco was hauled by wagon to the quaint little Gulf port of St. Marks, some forty miles away, and from there transhipped by sailboat, about one-third of the annual yield being exported. This pristine industry had its death knell sounded in the Civil War, although a few old stalwarts, too conservative to permit even a war to interfere with the accepted order of their lives, continued to grow their tobacco as though no vital revolution had occurred, selling it as they could or storing it against a brighter day.
But until 1887, tobacco culture in Florida was a most precarious undertaking, but from that year until 1896 its growing was attended with no inconsiderable success, although not as profitable as it might have been, due to the inability of the growers to produce the fancy wrapper required by the trade. In 1896, however, there was inaugurated an experiment in tobacco culture that was destined to revolutionize the cigar wrapper industry of the world-the first attempt to grow tobacco under shade, This experiment was the result of an inherent feeling on the part of one of the growers that a more delicately textured leaf would be produced by the protection of the growing tobacco from the powerful rays of the sun and the consequent conservation of the moisture so essential to successful tobacco growth, this grower having noticed that tobacco partly shaded by trees was of a higher quality than that entirely unprotected. The innovation was an immediate and a pronounced success, the first shade tobacco selling for more than $4 a pound, as against an average price of forty cents a pound for the sun variety. In 1917, by the way, the tobacco was further shaded by the addition of cheese cloth to the wooden slats, so that today Florida Sumatra leaf tobacco compares favorably in texture and quality with the imported variety.
The feasibility of growing tobacco under shade having been successfully demonstrated, the industry was gradually extended until in 1906 there were over five thousand acres under shade. At this time fabulous prices were paid by the buyers, averaging as high as eighty cents a pound in the field, a condition of affairs which led naturally to great over-production. The tobacco area was also extended to sections not adapted to tobacco growth, which led to the production of a large amount of inferior leaf; which was all placed on the market at the same time as the regular product. This over-production and general lowering of standard had its effect on the industry, and not only did Prices fall, but the demand also. In 1907 the Panic accentuated further the difficulties of the growers, and it was not until the beginning of 1909 that the industry began to revive.
In the latter part of that year the larger growers, realizing the paramount necessity of placing the industry on a thorough commercial basis, effected a consolidation for the growing, grading, and sale of the product. This consolidation had the effect of reviving the industry, for by establishing a uniform grade, a uniform price and effecting great economics in production and distribution, it placed the industry for the first time on a stable basis.
For some years the industry enjoyed a sustained and a healthy growth. Then came the War. Importations from Sumatra were almost entirely cut off, and yet the demand for cigars was increasing constantly. Prices increased tremendously, and this led to a tremendous increase in the acreage so that when normal conditions had been once more restored the supply was far greater than the demand. In the season 1919-1920, no less than 10,O0O acres were under cultivation, which meant, at an average yield of 1,000 pounds to the acre, ten million pounds. The crop that year was valued at approximately $15,000,000, the highest value of any year in history.
The growers were hard hit by the over-production, and in 1923 the industry was further adversely affected by the appearance of a plant disease that caused a great decrease in the yield. Growers lost money on every hand, and many of them abandoned tobacco growing entirely or materially reduced their acreage. Thus, at the present time there are only 1500 acres under cultivation to shade tobacco, but working in cooperation federal and state entomologists have almost developed a seed that promises to be absolutely immune to disease, and it is expected that its introduction will result in the complete rehabilitation of the industry.
Since 1924, a great many Florida farmers have commenced the cultivation of what is known to the trade as bright tobacco, a sun-grown tobacco used exclusively for the manufacture of cigarettes. There are now about 5,000 acres in cultivation to this variety of tobacco in Florida, and the acreage is increasing steadily, due to the enormously increased consumption of cigarettes. This tobacco is of the Carolina type, used in such well-known cigarettes as Camels and Chesterfields. There are said to be 250,000 acres of land in Florida suitable for this type of tobacco culture.
Florida's present tobacco yield amounts to approximately 5,000,000 pounds, valued at nearly $3,000,000.
Excerpt from: Agassiz, Garnault. "Florida in Tomorrow's Sun."
Suniland, Nov. 1925, Vol.3, No.2., Pgs. 37-45; 88-94; 113-133
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