One of the most striking results of the termination of the federal tobacco program so far has been the movement of burley production out of the areas that have traditionally led in production of that tobacco type and into new areas.
Two in particular showed in 2005 they have the physical resources and the farmer interest to be serious burley competitors in years to come.
The Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia was one of the big winners in the burley sweepstakes in 2005. New burley growers in North Carolina (including a few in the Coastal Plain) accounted for about 3.8 million pounds in 2005, estimates Blake Brown, North Carolina Extension economist. But there were other credible estimates of 4.5 million pound production or even more with area planted of 2,500 acres or more.
Across the border in Virginia, Piedmont counties that traditionally grow flue-cured and dark tobacco accounted for 615 acres of burley in 2005, says Stan Duffer, marketing specialist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture. No official estimate of Virginia volume was available, but a yield of 1,800 pounds per acre seemed plausible, and that would give production of about 1.1 million pounds.
If the NC/VA Piedmont were considered a “state” for statistical purposes, it might well account for 5 million pounds of burley in 2005, and perhaps considerably more.
The second major new player in the burley belt is southeastern Pennsylvania, especially the area around the city of Lancaster. This is the land of the “Pennsylvania Dutch,” old order farmers who shun mechanization, who manage very intensely and who usually have plentiful family labor. Not only that, but they have traditionally grown two types of tobacco — Pennsylvania seedleaf cigar filler and Southern Maryland light air-cured — that are cured in barns that can easily be adapted for burley. When you add that some of the best farm land in the world is located here, it is clear that the area has the potential to be very competitive in burley.
And it got off to a fast start last season, when burley production went from zero in 2004 to 4.8 million pounds in 2005, according to USDA's most recent crop report. That volume represented a yield of 2,200 pounds per acre.
The actual “Pennsylvania” production area should include neighboring Cecil County Md., which lies just to the south of Lancaster. Southern Maryland tobacco was produced there before, and some burley was grown in 2005.
A production estimate for Cecil County wasn't immediately available, but it seems likely to have produced enough to propel a hypothetical Lancaster PA/MD production area well into the 5 million pound production range.
“We have good soils for burley, and the growing conditions seem quite acceptable,” says Jerry Winstead of Trileaf Tobacco Co. of New Holland Pa. “Our farmers are very comfortable growing burley because they have so much experience growing the other air-cured tobacco types.”
There is a competition of sorts going on, but North Carolina Extension Economist Brown believes his state will eventually move into the No. 2 place among burley-growing states.
“North Carolina will surpass Tennessee in burley production,” says Blake Brown. “It won't equal Kentucky but it will be a significant producer of this type.”
The state was listed as fourth behind Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio in the U.S. Department of Agriculture crop report in 2005.
But Brown thinks the USDA projection for North Carolina of 5.8 million pounds is too low. He thinks that perhaps 6.5 million pounds of burley was grown in North Carolina in 2005, which would move it into third place.
About 3 million pounds was grown in the mountains of the western part of the state, which is the traditional burley area. That represents about a 50 percent reduction from last year.
The rest was grown in new areas, primarily the Piedmont with some in the Coastal Plain.
After one year, the morale of new burley growers in North Carolina is good.
“The North Carolina Piedmont will be very competitive in burley with expansion likely in 2006,” says Brown. “Burley is a good fit for Piedmont farms.
“Eastern North Carolina will be competitive too, but expansion there will be limited by Granville wilt.”
One area that is unlikely to join in the burley stampede is the southern Coastal Plain of Georgia and Florida.
“The weather conditions here most years are not conducive to a good burley cure,” says J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco specialist. “We have high humidity and extremely high temperatures at that time so it doesn't dry significantly during the day.”
Nevertheless, a few growers tried it in 2005.
“The plans were to grow 200 acres,” says Moore. “But planting conditions were difficult because of extreme heat. Only about 50 acres were planted, and it didn't look very good.”
Finding curing facilities was a problem. Several farmers cured their burley in an unused auction warehouse, with satisfactory results, says Moore.
It seems unlikely to appeal to many growers, but Moore understands that a few Georgians will grow burley again this year.
“We learned one lesson,” he says. “This burley was planted very late in the planting season and didn't do well. Those who do it again will try to plant earlier.”
In times past, there was a small but healthy burley production in the mountains of north Georgia. That has almost disappeared, but Moore says there was one burley grower left in north Georgia in 2005. “I understand he will plant again this year,” Moore says.
It might be questioned whether the migration of burley to new areas might prove to be a temporary situation. But Will Snell, Kentucky Extension economist, thinks the movement may have some staying power.
“I think we will continue to see more shifts in burley production,” he says. “There will be more [farmer] exits in traditional areas, primarily because of better yield potential elsewhere. A greater share will be grown in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Snell says he understands that some burley was grown in Illinois, Mississippi and Alabama in 2005 but doesn't know how much.
But Kentucky as a state will still grow the bulk of the burley, he predicts. “Historically, Kentucky has accounted for about 70 percent of the burley production in the U.S. That is not going to drop off tremendously even though in the short-term some of these other states will gain.”