Big Independent Tobacco Warehouse on Old Calhoun Road on the city’s west end is the only tobacco receiving station left in Owensboro and one of few left in the state. It has been co-owned by the Bittel, Kamuf and Kuegel families for generations.
“We have been in the tobacco business our whole lives,” said Hugh Bittel, co-owner and manager of Big Independent.
Bittel said he is in the middle of his selling season as Big Independent receives baled tobacco from farmers across the region. In February, Bittel says, farmers signed a contract with North Carolina based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the receiving station’s partner, to raise an agreed upon quantity and quality of tobacco. In late November and early December, R.J. Reynolds sends two buying agents to Big Independent to look at the farmers’ baled tobacco and assign a grade, which equates to the payout the farmer receives.
According to Bittel, Big Independent will facilitate the sale of 4 million pounds of tobacco this year, which at $2.03 per pound equates to over $8 million to regional farmers.
“It’s a good thing for our community when R.J. Reynolds brings money from all over the world to buy our tobacco,” said Bittel of the tobacco company whose parent corporation, British American Tobacco, is based out of London, England.
While Bittel, who has been managing Big Independent for the last 13 years, says selling tobacco that goes into cigarettes sold across the world is a benefit to local farmers, he admits the demand for the product is decreasing.
“The most we have sold is 6 million pounds so it fluctuates,” Bittel said. “There is a decrease in cigarette smoking with more vaping. And the perception of smokers is frowned on.”
Since Nov. 27, 3 million pounds of tobacco have been sold through Big Independent. R.J. Reynolds buyers have returned to North Carolina until Jan. 7, Bittel said.
“No more tobacco will be sold in Kentucky until the new year,” Bittel said.
That 3 million pounds equates to 150,000 pounds of tobacco shipped daily to R.J. Reynolds’ processing plant in North Carolina.
The tobacco that is sold through Big Independent is from as far as 100 miles away, according to Clint Hardy, a Daviess County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. Locally, Hardy says, nearly 1,300 acres of burley tobacco, used for cigarettes, and nearly 500 acres of dark air cure tobacco, used for smokeless snuff product, are grown in Daviess County.
“Big Independent is providing a service that no longer exists,” said Hardy, pointing out that all other tobacco warehouses in Owensboro, which were once plentiful, have since been sold or decommissioned.
Hardy says Big Independent has been able to stand the test of time because they moved away from the old auction sales method in 2004 and now only provide contract buying for R.J. Reynolds.
Bittel, 66, said he is unsure of the future of Big Independent given the decline in tobacco sales and the fact that all owners are aging.
“I don’t know who will take over when we’re gone,” Bittel said.