Sunday, September 10, 2000

Ky. burley pitched to Chinese

Officials look to huge market

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and farm representatives could find 300 million reasons for promoting Kentucky burley tobacco to a Chinese delega tion Saturday.

        That's the number of smokers in China, a vast potential market for tobacco farmers struggling to withstand declining production limits amid lower domestic cigarette use and higher leaf stockpiles.

        Mr. McConnell and the farm officials touted Kentucky burley in a meeting with Chinese officials touring the U.S. tobacco belt. The Chinese delegation visited a tobacco farm in Shelby County later Saturday.

        The promotion of Kentucky burley comes just weeks before China lifts its 11-year ban on American tobacco. The Kentuckians said the export potential could give a tremendous boost to the tobacco industry.

        Mr. McConnell said the meeting at the Kentucky Farm Bureau office went well. But the Republican senator cautioned that it's unlikely to reap immediate benefits for Kentucky burley farmers, facing a big drop in tobacco income because of a 45.3 percent quota cut this year.

        “Doing business with the Chinese is usually a long-term thing,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview. “So I don't want to raise expectations that we are going to solve our quota problem immediately. But looking at it from a long-term perspective, there are 300 million smokers in China.

        “We believe once they get a shot at cigarettes with American tobacco in it, they are going to like them. This is the best new market in the world, and we're going to be in this for the long haul, working each year to try to first begin and then increase our sales there.”

        Mr. McConnell was joined at the meeting by officials from the Kentucky Farm Bureau and Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.

        One main objective was to persuade the Chinese that the purchase of American tobacco would not expose China's domestic tobacco to blue mold, a fungus that can take a heavy toll on a tobacco crop if left unchecked.

        Blue mold doesn't exist in China, and it was the reason given by China for its ban on American tobacco.

        Patrick Jennings, a Farm Bureau official who attended the meeting, said University of Kentucky tobacco specialists hoped to persuade the Chinese that cured leaf does not carry a blue-mold threat.

        “The hard part of convincing them of that is we haven't had blue mold for a while, so it's hard to show them the hard evidence,” he said.

        Mr. Jennings said the Chinese delegation picked an opportune time to visit Kentucky. During their tour of farms, the Chinese officials will see how tobacco growers cut and house their leaf for curing, he said.

        The Chinese delegation made earlier stops in North Carolina and Virginia to visit farms, processing plants and storage warehouses.

        Chinese officials say they will put regulations in effect on Nov. 30 to allow tobacco imports to begin.

        Mr. Jennings said that getting even a 5 percent blend of Kentucky burley into Chinese cigarettes could help end quota cuts of the past few years, and perhaps even lead to higher tobacco production.

        Mr. McConnell said once that door opens for tobacco sales to China, “we are going to do everything we can to march through it.”

        The senator is helping arrange a visit to China by officials of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative to discuss sales of Kentucky burley.

        “It's going to take awhile to develop this market, but we believe it has enormous potential,” Mr. McConnell said.


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