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BeltWide’s Chuck Miglianti reflects on the U.S. farmer’s role in a global market and his experiences serving growers around the world.
TFQ Staff Report
From his roots on a dairy farm in upstate New York, Miglianti travels the world in his quest to be the premier supplier of greenhouse products to tobacco growers everywhere. TFQ caught up with Miglianti between trips and asked for his thoughts on his company, the future for U.S. growers and his adventures while serving the tobacco industry family.
TFQ: Please share some statistics on your company.
BeltWide Incorporated is headquartered in Tampa, Fla. Our soil medias, Carolina Gold, Burley Gold and Carolina Silver, are made in Canada to our specifications and shipped to their destinations. We sell float trays made from molders in the U.S., and we partner with molders around the world as well.
We market product to over 20 countries in North America, South and Central America, Europe and Africa. This is all tobacco transplant-production systems-related. I spend a lot of time in an airplane.
TFQ: Please provide some background on your life and career.
I was born and raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and my education is in ag engineering. We had 150 dairy cows on 1,000 acres, where a 10-acre field had seven corners, a spring and an apple tree in the middle. When cut, I bleed Allis Chalmers Persian orange, by the way.
The path of life delivered me to Florida, where I joined Speedling Incorporated in 1984 as a project manager. The project [I was working on] turned out to be the development of the first float system, introduced initially as a plug-and-transfer system. As it evolved, direct seeding became the norm.
Once in the hands of the growers and molded by the hard work of university researchers, it become the system widely accepted worldwide today.
I left Speedling in 1996 and, with my wife and partner, Carmen, formed BeltWide. I am the president, CEO and janitor of BeltWide. Carmen is the rest.
TFQ: BeltWide recently introduced a new shallow tray float system. How has the industry responded so far to this new product?
The shallow tray is an attempt to help growers reduce their input costs by reducing the soil media needed by 50 percent in a 288-cell tray, with no reduction in the quality of the transplant.
Dr. [David] Smith [a North Carolina State University tobacco specialist] has tested the tray favorably for two seasons, and this season we moved the project to some select growers around the belt. We’re testing on about 1,000 acres of transplants this season. So far, so good.
TFQ: What else is in the works for BeltWide?
Our corporate vision is for us to be the premier supplier of innovative greenhouse products to the tobacco transplant producer. We are continually working on products to reduce costs and provide some environmentally friendly products into the marketplace as well.
A. We are developing a new soil media—also after two years of testing at N.C. State and [the] University of Kentucky—that will reduce the cost of media by 15 percent or so per cubic foot. We have that product distributed to select growers throughout the belt this season for evaluation as well, along with the shallow tray system.
B. BeltWide is also looking at a recyclable, or truly disposable, float tray, perhaps plastic or even biodegradable.
C. The environmentally sound disposal of the EPS [expanded polystyrene] float trays has been a situation that we are looking at too. Traditional recycling methods have been impossible, as the used trays are contaminated with organic matter, etc. We continue to work with it.
These ideas present their challenges, and I think we might be getting close with A and solving B anyway. I have something to think about on those long airplane rides.
TFQ: What do you enjoy most about working in tobacco?
I enjoy the people the most. No matter where I travel, I find that tobacco industry folks are the best people. We are all in this together, working hard to provide for our families.
TFQ: What are your thoughts on the U.S. buyout? How do you think it will impact American farmers in the next year? What about in five years and beyond?
The buyout was necessary, in my opinion, for tobacco production in the U.S. to continue to be a viable industry and to reclaim and increase world market share.
I have found the university economists’ predictions since the buyout to be right on the money. Production is surging in the east, stabilizing in Kentucky. Five years from now, the production profile will be different from a couple of years ago and, I think, healthier.
TFQ: What role do you think American farmers will play in world production?
The U.S. producer can claim his dominant position as [grower of] the world’s best quality tobacco, now at a lower price worldwide. The infrastructure is in place. I have confidence in the U.S. producer.
TFQ: What challenges do you think that American farmers face?
I think the largest challenge that growers face is to make sure that they supply the product that the industry wants. There are few customers for tobacco producers; the product must be what the customer wants. A speaker at a recent conference summed it up: “If you ordered a new John Deere tractor, and I brought you five old, tired white ones, you would not be happy, right?”
I have been proud and happy to see the positive steps growers have taken to ensure the product is just right.
TFQ: As the leader of a company that serves both the U.S. and international markets, you must have some interesting stories that have arisen during your travels. Do you have any that you are willing to share?
There are many stories. Here, I still enjoy the smile on a grower’s face as we walk through his greenhouse looking at the “best stand ever.” I am proud to have been part of that development.
Around the world, we find time and time again that people are just good people raising their families. I remember the family in Indonesia that looked at their first-ever photograph through my digital camera; the Zambian man and wife that saw the germination in their first float system and danced with joy; the old man, crippled up with arthritis, in the Turkish restaurant that wanted to shake hands with everyone but couldn’t get out of his chair. I went over to him and everyone cheered.
Carmen and I have seen elephants play soccer in Thailand, [ridden] camels to the pyramids in Egypt [and] been on a train ride up the Andes mountains in Argentina. We’ve been to the Parthenon in Greece [and] walked the steps of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We have made wonderful friends here and around the world.
This is because of our tobacco industry family, and we appreciate the opportunity that we have had.