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Severe flooding finalizes bad year for tobacco farmersSevere flooding finalizes bad year for tobacco farmers

Disease, flooding and drought plagued Southeast tobacco farmers in 2015.

Chris Bickers

November 11, 2015

5 Min Read
<p>The leaf comes off the stalk quickly in Yadkin County, N.C., near Winston-Salem, as a farmer runs his mechanical harvester through his flue-cured late in the season.</p>

The rain that flooded much of the tobacco-growing area of South Carolina would have had a catastrophic impact on leaf yield if it had fallen a month earlier.

But William Hardee, area Extension agronomy agent for Horry and Marion Counties — both in northeastern South Carolina and both smack in the path of the October 1-3 rains — said that by the time the storm began, there was not much tobacco left in the field.

And what was left was ridden by disease and likely wouldn’t have yielded very much even if conditions had been ideal.

“We’d had perfect disease weather the last week or 10 days of September,” Hardee said. “There was bad bacterial wilt along with sunscald that we’d had earlier.”

Tré Coleman, South Carolina Department of Agriculture marketing specialist, estimated that no more than one to two percent of the state's 30 million pound crop remained on the stalk when the rain started falling. He predicted that nearly all of it would be lost.

"I don't know if any can be salvaged," he said.

In most of the U.S. tobacco belt, the 2015 season was characterized by too much rainfall early and too much heat and drought the rest of the way. Yields for the two major types — burley and flue-cured — are clearly going to be below average.

As flue-cured harvest wound down in early October, there was hope the quality might end up being about average or close to it.

Much depended on how well farmers would be able to cure tobacco that was in an unusual condition.

A period of intense mid-summer heat and the effect on the chemistry of the crop was the cause of a lot of that poor leaf condition.

“After several days of 105 degree heat, real skill had to be applied to curing this year's flue-cured,” said Boyd.

Even veteran growers who had cured many crops found it difficult to figure out how to cure this less than desirable leaf, he said.

In Mecklenburg County, Va., in central Virginia right on the North Carolina border, Extension agent Taylor Clarke said the county was fortunate not to have more damage than isolated flooding and a downed tree or two. “But tobacco will suffer some damage from extended wet conditions.”

Won't have the dark color we like to see, says farmer

In Appomattox County, about 60 miles north of Mecklenburg, burley harvest was getting close to completion in late September, and the burley looked good in the barns, said Extension agent Bruce Jones. Dark fire-cured tobacco is also grown in the county. “Most of the dark is completely cured already, but ‘smoking’ will continue during wet conditions to keep tobacco as dry as needed,” he said.

Curing was also a challenge for this type. Roger Quarles, a burley grower from Georgetown, Ky., said, “We will do what we can, but this crop won't have the dark color we like to see. It's going to be light colored."

The burley states got unrelenting rain starting around July 1. But after that, it turned very dry in the Bluegrass, he said. "Since the early rains stopped, it has lacked the moisture it needed to fill."

In Tennessee, heavy early rains in many parts of the state led to problems in the field with bacterial soft rot, said Eric Walker, Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist. "There was some leaf loss.”

Target spot was also bad in some areas. But blue mold, which had seemed so threatening after its relatively early first outbreak on June 1, ended up being a non-issue this season.

Not a whole lot of Tennessee’s burley remained to be harvested as of Oct. 1. "We are over half way done with barning, and it may be more like three quarters," Walker said at the time. "We are on the backside now."

The burley-growing district of western North Carolina received 11 straight days of rain through Oct. 4. “It significantly changed the situation from drought to wet,” said Stanley Holloway, Extension director in Yancey County. “Most of the county received between six to 10 inches of rain in the last week. A few smaller streams overflowed their banks. However, no significant damage has been reported.”

But farmers are having a difficult time in getting their tobacco out of the field, he said.

By the way, the rain from this weather event reached all the way from the Atlantic to the Blue Ridge: Mount Mitchell in western N.C. received nearly 26 inches of rain in the two weeks ending Oct. 4.

About 85 percent of the statewide Virginia flue-cured crop had been harvested by Oct. 4, according to USDA, compared to 79 percent of the North Carolina flue-cured crop, 97 percent of the Georgia flue-cured crop and 92 percent of the South Carolina flue-cured crop.

Kentucky farmers had harvested 94 percent of the burley crop by Oct. 4, according to the same source, while North Carolina growers had harvested 60 percent of their burley crop.

Volumes continued to slide in September, said USDA. The October projection for tobacco production (released Oct. 9) put flue-cured volume at 468 million pounds, a million pounds more than USDA estimated in September, but 18 percent less than last year. It projected burley production at 152 million pounds, five million pounds less than it estimated in August and 29 percent less than last year.

Among the individual states:

Flue-Cured: North Carolina —365.5 million pounds, down 19 percent. Virginia — 48.3 million pounds, down 10 percent. South Carolina — 27.1 million pounds, down percent. Georgia — 27.3 million pounds, down 20 percent.

Burley: Kentucky — 114 million pounds, down 30 percent. Tennessee — 19.2 million pounds, down 29 percent. Pennsylvania — 11.2 million pounds, down 11.5 percent. Ohio — 3.3 million pounds, down 22 percent. Virginia — 2.1 million pounds, down 26 percent. North Carolina - two million pounds, down 23 percent.

Other Types:

Fire-cured — 56.9 million pounds, down three percent. Dark air-cured — 17.6 million pounds, down one percent. Connecticut/Massachusetts cigar types — 4.1 million pounds, down one percent. Southern Maryland — 3.6 million pounds, down 21 percent. Pennsylvania seedleaf — 2.9 million pounds, down 21 percent.

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