Kentucky tobacco farmers dealt late-season setback

Recent heavy rains that soaked Kentucky delivered a late-season setback to some tobacco farmers as their leaf ripens, dampening their hopes for a bumper crop after a couple of drought years.

More than a half-foot of rain fell across part of the Bluegrass State last week as the bulk of the burley tobacco crop was curing in tobacco farmersbarns - an autumn ritual when the long green leaves gradually change to reddish brown in a process that prepares the leaf for market.

The prolonged stretch of wet weather in the state that leads the nation in burley production at least briefly heightened the risk of tobacco being afflicted with mold or fungus that can rot away part of the leaf.

Fields with uncut tobacco turned into muddy bogs, slowing harvest and hurting leaf quality.

“It’s certainly putting a hardship on the farmers,” said Nick Carter, agricultural extension agent in Fayette County in central Kentucky.

Will Snell, a University of Kentucky agricultural economist specializing in tobacco, said burley, an ingredient in cigarettes, started out curing well, but the combination of high humidity and rain has been “very hard on the crop.”

That has added to the anxiety of farmers growing tobacco under contract for tobacco companies. A poor crop can be turned away or fetch a lower price.

“There’s a lot of fear with guys knowing that the tobacco companies aren’t going to take low-quality tobacco,” said Kenny Seebold, a UK extension tobacco specialist.

“Everybody here is on thin margins. They need all the income that they can get.”

A weekly report said some farmers indicated that the high humidity and wet weather are “taking a toll on housed tobacco,” according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Kentucky field office.

Snell said timing could be crucial in determining how well each individual crop cures this fall.

Burley that reached the barn early in the season “may still do well,” he said, but later-planted tobacco housed just before the onslaught of rains “may have some major issues.”

Another factor, he said, is that “some farmers crammed the tobacco in the barn too tightly due to limited barn space, and that is just adding to the problem.”

About one-third of the statewide tobacco crop - which includes burley and dark tobacco - was rated fair or poor, while the rest was considered good or excellent, according to the latest report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Two weeks earlier, before the heavy rain, slightly less than one-fifth of the tobacco crop was considered fair or poor. Dark tobacco is mostly grown in western Kentucky and is used in smokeless and chewing tobacco products.

The nation’s largest tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris USA, remains upbeat about prospects for the Kentucky burley crop, which is blended with other types of tobacco in making cigarettes.

“Our perspective is that it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good year,” said David Sutton, a Philip Morris spokesman.

In Tennessee, also inundated with rain last week, 27 percent of the tobacco crop was rated fair or poor, with the rest in good or excellent condition. Three-fourths of Tennessee’s burley crop has been harvested and is in the curing stage.

Elsewhere in the tobacco belt, burley cutting in Virginia was 80 percent complete, as was the harvest of flue-cured tobacco, another type of tobacco. In North Carolina, the burley harvest was 72 percent complete and flue-cured harvest was 85 percent finished.

Some 21 percent of Kentucky’s burley crop was uncut at the start of this week, according to the most recent crop report, and the situation for those growers was more critical as heavy rains took a toll.

In northern Kentucky, fieldhand Clinton Yates was slogging in a muddy field Tuesday where yellow, wilted tobacco leaves showed signs of too much rain.

“My boots weigh 50 pounds apiece,” he said.

Around him were tobacco leaves stretching only a few inches long when they should extend 2 feet, he said. Yates said only 8 or 9 acres of tobacco in a 54-acre field would be salvageable.

“We’re going to put it in the barn and see what it will turn out like - as long as it doesn’t rain again,” Yates said.

This year’s burley production in Kentucky was forecast at 160.6 million pounds as of Sept. 1, up 9 percent from last year. Burley yield was projected at 2,200 pounds per acre, above last year’s output.

Seebold said he heard from some Kentucky farmers that the summer growing season was so favorable that the burley was “really heavy” and “hard to handle” during harvesting.

“There was a lot of good tobacco going into the barn,” he said. “In fact, we were thinking we might even see almost an oversupply of it.”

Rusty Thompson, a tobacco grower in Woodford County in central Kentucky, said the wet weather will slightly reduce yield for his burley now curing. But there’s also an upside - those conditions will turn the leaf a darker shade that tobacco companies prefer.

“We’ll sacrifice a little bit of yield, but the color … will be a little bit better,” he said.

Tobacco cures ideally in warm daytime temperatures followed by cool, dewy nighttime conditions, which allows the leaf to take in moisture at night and dry down in the day. Growers had a different problem the past two years, when dry conditions hampered tobacco curing, Seebold said.

Farmers got some welcome relief early this week with dry, windy conditions that could hasten the drying of tobacco curing in the barns, curbing any onset of mold and rot.

Gary Carter, agricultural extension agent in Harrison County in northern Kentucky, tried to remain upbeat about the crop’s prospects: “We could go into a dry time, and this would come out just fine.”

By BRUCE SCHREINER, Sep. 30, 2009

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