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Burley tobacco beefs up mountain farming

Hard times are bringing back fond memories for farmers in western North Carolina. Burley, the state’s other tobacco, is rebounding there, playing on its ability to generate substantial cash from small plots tended by family farmers and part-timers. “Down east, you see thousand-acre tobacco farms,” says Jeff Bradley, agricultural agent for Buncombe and several other counties. “Here, you’ve got 1- or 2-acre plots — maybe 5 — because there’s just not that much tillable land. You plant little patches where you can.”

A heavy leaf blended with flue-cured tobacco in cigarettes, burley doesn’t pack the economic wallop of the state’s main strain. Last year’s crop sold for less than 1% of the more than $500 million fetched by the flue-cured variety. But it’s better suited to the cool mountain climate and requires less labor and investment, making it attractive to families in which the breadwinner has lost a job. It fell out of favor in 2004, when the federal government bought out tobacco allotments and quit supporting prices. Acreage dropped from about 8,000 in 1998 to fewer than 3,500 in 2008. Many farmers used money from the buyout to buy cattle, says Elizabeth Ayers, agricultural extension agent in Madison County, one of the state’s largest burley producers. “Now, the bottom has dropped out of cattle, and they’re looking more favorably at tobacco.”

Most burley in western North Carolina is grown under contract to major cigarette makers, though Bradley says many farmers take their chances on the spot market. Two former tobacco-auction warehouses in Asheville now buy burley that way, basing prices roughly on those offered in contracts. “You pull up with your load, and the operator pays what it’s worth,” says Scott Bissette, tobacco-marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “He then aggregates it and resells it to a bigger dealer.”

The future of burley is probably modest. Increased taxes on cigarettes could cut domestic demand, though analysts say the export market should remain strong. “Burley used to be king in western North Carolina,” Ayers says. “I don’t think we’ll see that again, but it’s such a tradition in these parts it’ll be around for a lot of years to come.”

MAGGIE VALLEYGhost Town Partners, owner of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It still will open for its 2009 season this month and employ as many as 225.

SYLVAT&S Hardwoods’ sawmill will quit cutting green lumber early this month, idling about half of its 75 employees. The rest will be let go in the fall after the mill winds down operations. The Milledgeville, Ga.-based company blamed low demand.

BOONE — Raleigh-based Curtis Media Group bought six radio stations that broadcast here and nearby towns from Aisling Broadcasting for $2.3 million. Curtis owns 25 stations from the mountains to the coast.

HENDERSONVILLEMargaret R. Pardee Memorial Hospital made $6.5 million last year, its best since plunging nearly $4.5 million into the red four years ago. Much of the earnings came from selling a 130-bed nursing center for $4.9 million.

BANNER ELK — David Bushman resigned, effective the end of this month, as president of Lees-McRae College. He will return to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., as founding dean of its school of natural sciences and math.

FLETCHER — Two airlines added flights at Asheville Regional Airport. Delta Air Lines began daily nonstop service to New York City. AirTran Airways flies to Orlando, Fla., three times a week.