BY BOB HURLEY
Only a handful of tobacco growers showed up at a Philip Morris USA-sponsored informational meeting Wednesday evening at the Clyde Austin 4-H Center.
"We were here and left, and now we want to come back," Shelby Belk, of Bardstown, Ky., a Philip Morris USA tobacco buyer who presented the program, said during her presentation.
"We want to see what kind of interest is here," Belk said, "while looking at the possibility of opening a receiving [buying] station in the Greeneville area."
But, based on the reaction of a handful of Greene County growers in attendance, the current level of interest in selling to Philip Morris USA might not be great enough for the re-establishment of a company buying station in the Greeneville area.
(Editor's Note: Philip Morris USA, also known as PM USA, which sponsored Wednesday night's meeting, is separate from Philip Morris International.
(Philip Morris USA, based in Richmond, Va., has for a number of years been the United States tobacco division of Altria Group, Inc.
(Philip Morris International, also referred to as PMI, is a spinoff from the Altria Group and has since 2008 been a separate company based in Switzerland.)
'NOT INTERESTED' AT THIS POINT
"I'm not the least bit interested in what [PM USA] has to offer," Mike Gray, a grower from Horse Creek who was once one of the company's major growers in East Tennessee, said following the meeting.
At one time, Gray was growing more than 150 acres of tobacco for Philip Morris.
But after the company abruptly pulled its buying station out of Greene County after the 2011 growing season, Gray found other buyers for his crop, which is just a fraction of what it once was.
"Until they get serious and offer us a lot more money than what they are offering now, I'm not interested ...," Gray said.
Asked what he thought might come from the meeting that the company hosted in Greeneville on Wednesday night, Gray replied, "Probably nothing."
"I don't look for a thing to happen. They [PM USA] won't come back here now because there is no interest in them."
NO Q/A SESSION
Most of the meeting was devoted to a video presentation by the company on the production of tobacco and how it is manufactured into cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco products.
No time was allowed for questions from the growers, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Grainger County.
The meeting had been advertised in several East Tennessee newspapers including The Greeneville Sun.
The 4-H Center staff had prepared a meal for 100 people, but only 14 signed the guest log.
DEPARTURE 'LEFT A BAD TASTE'
"When [Philip Morris USA] left here, they left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people," Hilton Seay, a grower from the Hartman's Chapel community, said following the meeting.
"The demand for tobacco was low at the time, but now that demand is high, they want back in, and it looks like growers are not warming up to them."
Seay and other growers at the meeting expressed satisfaction with buying stations that purchased the 2012 crop, especially the Greeneville-based Burley Stabilization Corporation, which is headquartered in the former Co-Op Tobacco Warehouse on West Main Street.
"It is apparent that [PM USA] doesn't realize the negative feelings that many growers here feel toward them," Seay said.
Seay was among those who were disappointed that the meeting did not include a time for questions.
"I wanted to ask them why they left Greeneville in the first place," he said.
The current renewed demand for tobacco, which is the best news heard by tobacco growers in years, is also a bit baffling.
"This shortage of tobacco is just amazing," Seay said.
"Who would have thought it? If I had the land and barn space, I'd shoot for a whole lot more than what I'm now planning to grow this year."
'THREE YEARS, LOT MORE MONEY
When Philip Morris USA announced the informational meeting in a series of newspaper ads throughout East Tennessee last week, Gary Berry, a major producer of tobacco transplants in Greene County, was among those registering surprise at the gesture.
"They jerked us around for 10 years before pulling out totally," Berry said following Wednesday night's meeting, "and now they are literally begging for our tobacco. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Asked what he thought might come of the Philip Morris proposal to re-establish a presence in the Greeneville area, Berry said he didn't look for anything to happen in the short term.
"It will take three years and a lot more money than they are offering now for growers to begin looking at [the company] again," said Berry.
"And," he added, "you could tell by the looks on the faces of this group here tonight that not many of us are interested in talking to [PM USA] at all right now."
The centerpiece of the meeting was drawing attention to contracts being offered to growers by the company.
Belk spent several minutes detailing a list of rules and regulations that now govern the production of tobacco.
She mentioned the possibility of re-establishing a satellite buying station in the Greeneville area only briefly, a fact which came as no surprise to Gary Waddell, a veteran grower from Cedar Creek.
INTEREST 'NOT ALL THAT GREAT'
"I think they saw right off the bat that interest in [PM USA] is not all that great right now in Greene County," Waddell said after the meeting.
"I don't see a [company] buying station opening here as long as we can market our tobacco with local people that we know and trust.
"Now, if [Philip Morris] wants to get the price up there where it needs to be, there might be some interest. But as it stands now, they are just about even with what all the other buyers are paying."
Waddell said there might be a lesson here that goes much further than the tobacco fields of Cedar Creek.
"They [PM USA] could have cared less for us just a couple of years ago," Waddell said.
"And now they are back, begging for our tobacco in a fashion none of us would have dreamed about while they were leaving town and telling us they no longer needed us."