Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Drought Hurts Corn Cob Pipe Maker

Morning Edition:
RACHEL LIPPMANN, BYLINE: Walk into the sprawling brick building that houses the Missouri Meerschaum Company, and you get the sense that not much has changed since the 1880s. Sure, there's electricity now and running water. But when it comes to making the pipes that made the company famous, the process is pretty much the same. And that's just how general manager Phil Morgan likes it.
PHIL MORGAN: We like the heritage nature, the authentic nature of our pipe. You know, we like the - it's a natural product.
LIPPMANN: So this buzzing sound emanating from the second floor of his 133-year-old factory makes him cringe.
MORGAN: And I'd love for this - for it to be dead quiet up here. And the only thing to hear, a few squirrels running around.
LIPPMANN: Mounds of cobs are scattered across the wood floor of this unheated space, waiting to be cut into pieces, shaped into pipes of all sizes, coated in plaster, and shipped all over the world. In an ideal situation, this room would be full of cobs and they would sit for two years, drying naturally. So corn grown in 2012 wouldn't become pipes until 2014.
But the buzzing from the propane heater is helping these cobs dry more quickly. Though the weather was fine in 2010 and 2011, the cobs that grew were of poor quality. Morgan needed a good 2012 growing season to replenish his company's supply.
MORGAN: We had the seed we needed. But it was really warm in the spring, planted it early, the corn looked fantastic, and then the drought hit. Our field is irrigated so it wasn't just the drought, it was the heat. Corn does not like heat.
LIPPMANN: That 2012 crop produced just a third of the cobs needed. With inventory already low, there wasn't time for them to dry naturally. So that means firing up the propane. In addition, Morgan had to temporarily stop offering bigger pipes. And total sales, which had been rising in recent years, dropped.
MORGAN: It isn't just from a sales standpoint and a profitability standpoint. It's just what it does to your psyche. I mean, when you start thinking that hey, oh my God, are we going to have to quit making pipes for some period of time.
LIPPMANN: But cob smokers are loyal customers. And if recent sales at John Dengler Tobacconist in St. Charles are any indication, business will continue to be brisk. Owner Larry Muench sells about 700 Missouri Meerschaums a year.
LARRY MUENCH: It always starts in the end of August, September, when the college kids come in town. And I always start them off with a corn cob. Why should then spend 30, 40, 50 bucks and find out they don't like it. So I tell the kids if they buy a corn cob and they don't like it, just wait for winter and put it in the snowman's mouth.
I really liked the part about selling the corn cob pipes to the college students.  I bought a Missouri Meerschaum between high school and college, and smoked it on and off through school, before I decided that, like with cigars, waking up with the taste of an ashtray in your mouth wasn't all that cool.  I always loved the smell of pipe tobacco, and the smell of it burning wasn't too bad either, but the taste wasn't all that great.  I went with the corn cob pipe both for price and sentimentality.  I probably still have it somewhere, but I have no idea where.  Anyway, this piece brought back old memories.

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