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Tobacco farmers needed a good year

Tobacco Belt got intense heat in early- and mid-summer, which left growers wondering how things could get worse. They got worse.

Chris Bickers

February 22, 2019

6 Min Read
This field of flue-cured near Wilson, N.C., took a heavy hit from Florence’s rains and especially its winds. When leaves are beaten around like they were here, they deteriorate and turn dark, losing quality.

At a time when American tobacco growers really needed a good season in the field because of economic, political and regulatory pressures, they didn’t get it in 2018.

The season started out with listless contracting by the manufacturers. Government agencies — especially the Food and Drug Administration — threatened draconian regulation that soured farmers’ outlooks. But worst of all was the weather.

Much of the Tobacco Belt got intense heat in early- and mid-summer, which left growers wondering how things could get worse. They got worse.

The rains began in mid-summer in some areas and later in others, nearly all the Tobacco Belt from western Kentucky to southern Ohio got way more moisture than needed.

That only intensified when two hurricanes struck the flue-cured farms in North and South Carolina in late September and early October and when ongoing torrential rains swamped Kentucky and neighboring burley regions in September.

As Rob Glover, a flue-cured grower in eastern North Carolina remembers mournfully, “It seemed like we had our driest season and our wettest season in one year.”

The hot dry summer left much of Glover’s crop in poor condition, but in July he was hopeful that if rain would come he could still rescue it.

He got much more than he bargained for when Hurricane Florence blew in.

 “Half our tobacco was still in the field when the hurricane arrived,” says Glover, whose operation is near the town of Bailey. And it was the top half of the crop, which is the most valuable part.”

Much of this leaf was lost in the field. And the leaf he was able to harvest didn’t turn out well at all. The whipping effect of 70 to 80 mile per hour wind gusts and 18 to 23 inches of rain triggered a plant response that caused leaf to over-ripen and turn yellow, then brown.

“We ‘barned’ for 10 days after the storm,” says Glover. “But after it was cured, the quality just wasn’t there. The leaf we harvested was dark and burned-looking. When we put the heat to those leaves (in the curing process), it all turned black.”

Glover wound up losing 40 percent to 50 percent of the expected yield of his crop and about that much of the expected gross.

“It was not a good outcome,” he says.

The USDA’s last estimate of the crop’s volume indicated the drastic losses from the previous year because of the weather, especially the hurricanes in North Carolina and the extreme rain damage in Kentucky.

Flue-cured production for the 2018 crop was projected to total 342 million pounds, the report said, down 26 percent from 2017. Production by state: North Carolina — 252.8 million pounds, down 29.5 percent. Georgia — 22.5 million pounds, down 14.2 percent. South Carolina — 20.4 million pounds, down 19 percent. Virginia — 46.2 million pounds, down 9.2 percent.

Burley production beltwide is expected to total nearly 113 million pounds, down about 30 percent from 2017. Production by state: Kentucky — 90.1 million pounds, down 30.2 percent. Tennessee — 10.2 million pounds, down 43.3 percent. Pennsylvania — 9.6 million pounds, down 7.2 percent. Virginia — 1.7 million pounds, down 22.7 percent. North Carolina — 1.36 million pounds, down 5.5 percent.

Minor type production was projected at:

  • Fire-cured — 57.7 million pounds, down 14.3 percent;

  • Southern Maryland (Pennsylvania) — 3.22 million pounds, down 25.4 percent.

  • Dark air-cured — 26.44 million pounds, up 30.1 percent; and

  • Pennsylvania seedleaf — 5.52 million pounds, up 27.7 percent.

Some market observers have suggested that USDA’s estimate for all burley at 113 million pounds may be way to high.

Daniel Green, chief operating officer, Burley Stabilization Corporation, a cooperative, believes the final count might be closer to 90 million pounds. Either volume would be the smallest burley crop since records have been kept.

It had been estimated before the season started that 100 to 110 million pounds of U.S. burley was needed to meet the demand, so it is likely that some buyers will not get the leaf they wanted.

But Will Snell, Kentucky Extension tobacco economist, isn’t optimistic that a hot market will result. “I’m not sure the short crop will warrant aggressive buying by the companies, given sluggish demand.”

Slumping demand that led to reduced contracting, coupled with an extremely poor growing season, resulted in a significantly smaller burley crop in 2018, according to the University of Kentucky’s recent Agricultural Economic Situation and Outlook.

Given the current outlook, labor and regulatory challenges, product demand changes and tighter margins, look for continued concentration in the number of Kentucky farms growing tobacco in 2019, the publication said.

Don Fowlkes, agronomist with Burley Stabilization in Tennessee, said the quality of the crop is better than might be expected.

“There is a significant amount of dark colored leaf, with much of it getting FR grades,” he said. Though some leaf suffered houseburn and turned black, says Fowlkes, “This looks like one of the better-colored burley crops we have had in some time.”

The quality of this burley crop is decent, says Burley Stabilization’s Green. “You could call this crop ‘low in volume but acceptable in quality’,” he says. “But much of the leaf is thin. There isn’t a lot of the good-bodied redder styles that buyers are looking for.”

But the yield tanked. Extended excessive rains drastically reduced production on many Tennessee farms, says Fowlkes.

The situation was much the same in Kentucky, especially in the Bluegrass. “Many farmers produced a yield of less than 2,000 pounds,” says Snell. “You can’t justify labor and other costs with that low of a yield.”

In the burley-producing area of southern Ohio, it rained so much it looked like a swamp, at the end of the year. Much of the burley crop was damaged, says David Dugan, Extension educator in Brown County Ohio. “Early tobacco here was pretty decent, but many fields that were planted later were rough,” he says. He estimates a statewide loss of around 50 percent in production.

In the flue-cured area of southern Virginia, the excessive rain arrived in late August and continued in the form of storms in September and October. An early estimate of loss of potential yield from that point on was 10 to 12 percent.

In South Carolina only about 200 to 400 acres still had unharvested leaf when the hurricanes arrived, almost all of it tip leaf.

Some of it might have been salvageable after the storm, but farmers had to wait for soils to dry before they could get back into the field. It is quite possible that none of the leaf harvested after Florence was even marketed.

It was a very rainy season in the flue-cured states of Georgia and Florida too. But the rains were not associated with Florence and Michael, both of which arrived after the crops there were harvested.

The storms did do a small amount of damage to harvested leaf damaged barns and storage buildings.

Bottom line: Yields were reduced in Georgia and Florida, and the leaf was thin to light, according to Extension sources. But many buyers reportedly said they were pleased with the quality.

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