Plowed under tobacco crop

HADLEY - Up and down the Connecticut River valley, fields where tall, leafy tobacco plants would be growing in past summers are now barren of life.

Many farms that cultivate broadleaf or shade tobacco have lost nearly their entire crop to viral diseases brought on by the unrelenting rain and cold since May.

“I plowed all mine under,” said Joseph Czajkowski. “Our family raises about 35 acres of tobacco, and we lost all of it. Almost everyone I know who grows tobacco lost almost all theirs.”

“It’s been devastating,” said Ted Smiarowski, the area agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency. “A lot of farmers are saying this is the worst crop that they can remember. There wasn’t any drying weather, so the crops stayed damp and diseases settled in.”

Nearly 16 inches of rain fell in much of the Connecticut River valley in June and July. And, temperatures ran 4 to 5 degrees below normal over the two months in most areas. Tobacco crops were struck by as many as four separate viruses, growers said.

Tobacco was once one of the biggest cash crops in Massachusetts, and much of it was grown in the Connecticut River Valley, which was renowned for the quality of its tobacco used to wrap cigars. However, the decline in smoking rates has meant fewer acres devoted to tobacco here and elsewhere.

In 1950 in Massachusetts, 13.1 million pounds of tobacco were harvested from 8,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2008, the harvest was only 970,000 pounds from 690 acres.

But it’s still important for those who grow it, Czajkowski said.

“I know some people don’t appreciate tobacco, but it’s helped a lot of families pay their bills. It’s a higher value crop than most. For instance, an acre of tobacco earns a lot more than an acre of field corn,” he said.

Smiarowski’s brother, Bernie A. Smiarowski, grows about 40 acres of tobacco on his farm in Hatfield, all of which was lost. While most farmers have crop insurance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it does not pay for the entire loss, he said.

“You’re getting your money back, but you don’t survive on just collecting insurance,” Smiarowski said.

However, diversification has helped growers, he said. Less than 10 percent of his acreage is devoted to tobacco. He has nearly 500 acres in other crops, primarily potatoes. That meant his 20 or so workers, who all live locally, kept their jobs, although he had to reduce hours for a few.

A scant few farmers avoided losing their crop. One was John Coward, of Southwick, who grows broadleaf tobacco, which is used in cigar wrappers, on 35 acres there.

“We’re one of the few farms that is harvesting a crop this year. We’re harvesting almost 100 percent, although it’s a little lighter than in past years. It’s probably by luck more than anything else. We were in a small vicinity where we had a little less rain than surrounding towns,” he said.

Ted Smiarowski said that in past growing seasons, tobacco growers have depended on a mixture of area workers and migrant workers, some of whom come up from the South or from the Caribbean.

“Because of the situation this year, there were migrant workers who never came into the valley, and many local workers who aren’t back on the farm harvesting tobacco,” he said.

Betsy Caraballo, a manager in the Hartford office of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, which provides training and other support for workers, said layoffs this time of the growing season are uncommon. Yet, she is seeing it.

“Several people have come in saying they have been laid off due to crop losses. Usually, at this time of the year, we don’t see that because obviously it’s the high season. In past years around now, workers might be working 60 hours a week and farms are still looking for people to hire,” she said.

© Copyright: Masslive

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