Friday, July 21, 2006

Sunrise on the tobacco auction floor

There's a tobacco auctioneers over the road from our office. How many people can say that? I've been watching it on and off all week, wondering what goes on in there. Last night we wandered over after work, and the whole place practically ground to a halt as lots of men in bright green overalls stopped to wave and say hello. We wandered around a bit, feeling that strange feeling of being white and female in a very black and male place. It's like coming from a different planet, but in a very benign way. I guess we were taking our gilded status a little too much for granted though, as after a while we were picked up by security and taken to the manager's office.
He was very polite, but basically said 'we can't have people just wandering around all over the place'. Fair enough, we said. If you want to know what's going on, he said, come back tomorrow morning and I'll get someone to show you around and explain what's happening. Okay, we said. Thanks very much, and, er, sorry.
And so it was that we turned up there this morning at 7.30 am and the auction floor foreman gave us a tour. I have never seen anything like it in my life. The tobacco comes in in bales of different grades and qualities, from flue-dried yellow stuff which is top quality to much lower grade dark brown stuff from small farms. It's weighed (the top quality bales can weigh over 100 kilos, the lower quality ones are more like 40 kilos) and then sold -- the auctioneers and buyers walk down rows of bales at top speed bidding and counting and gesticulating. There are tobacco checkers who check the bales and reject them if they have faults, ringing abbreviations on forms like 'TFA' for 'too far apart', which means the different bunches in the bale are of different quality and can't be processed together. The low quality stuff goes for about 40 cents (US) per kilo, and the Virginia stuff for maybe $2.50 per kilo.
It was fascinating -- the auction house sells over 5000 bales a day between 7.30 am and noon, and they are all loaded onto lorries and out by 4pm. That's what all the men in the green overalls do. Some South African buyers explained to us how it's then processed and sold on to cigarette manufacturers.
I know tobacco is Very Bad, and I know commodity producers get a really raw deal, and I know the whole thing is cut throat and exploitative. But it was fascinating to see, and I have been thinking about smoking all day...


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