Winding Back and Up Tobacco Roads

green autumn leaf with touches of yellow

Green autumn leaf with touches of yellow

It’s October in NC, and nature’s colors are glorious right now.

With familial roots stemming in eastern NC, I know well the colors of the NC countryside, and a portion of my collective memory is devoted to the colors that I’ve seen while cruising down tobacco roads.

One of the most distinctive colors of the field that stands out in my mind, besides the white of cotton bales, is the yellow-green color of North Carolina’s tobacco leaves.

So many of us from eastern NC have connections to the tobacco plant. For example, my childhood home was located two blocks from a downtown tobacco warehouse, and my father’s law office was located on the same block.

One night, that huge tobacco warehouse burned down. I’ll never forget awakening to learn that local firefighters were spraying water on my dad’s law office building to prevent it from burning. And, I’ll never forget how all the homeowners on our block were stricken with fear, as burning cinders from the tobacco warehouse blew down our street, landing in our yards and along our rooftops.

Looking back now, that tobacco warehouse fire seemed to signal a new time and thinking about the tobacco plant, thinking that had more negative connotations than in the past.

Yes, it seems that as I came of age in NC, the tobacco plant alternatively began to lose its luster. As world health organizations made the connection between smoking cigarettes and the incidences of lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, tobacconists and those with livelihoods connected to the tobacco plant seemed to wane and disappear. Tobacco warehouses didn’t burn, but more and more stood empty.

The tobacco plant, however, never became non-existent in N.C., and now, ironically, a relative to the tobacco plant of old is helping to turn people’s thinking back to the positive when it comes to the topic of tobacco.

How? “Biopharming,” or developing plant-based drugs is the answer. You’ve probably already heard how Owensboro-based Kentucky BioProcessing has developed the Ebola-fighting serum, ZMapp, from tobacco plants. Have you heard of the NC-based biopharmaceutical company, Medicago, who recently produced 10 million flu vaccines in 30 days using tobacco plants? You can learn more about these two positive applications for tobacco in the CNN article, “Tobacco plant may be key to Ebola drugs.”

The nostalgic part of me will never let go of my roots tied to traditional NC tobacco farming but the more modern side of me is prouder than ever of the new biopharmaceutical, plant-based drug development and manufacturing efforts that are underway, and, best of all, happening right here in, “The Old North State.”

And, I admit…I’ve always loved a comeback story.  What about you?

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