The production picture for burley tobacco in this country became a little clearer late in the year when Maryland released statistics on its leaf production.
Dave Conrad, Maryland Extension agronomist, who wrote the report, said growers in his state produced nearly a million pounds of burley (Type 31). That was about 20 percent more than in 2005, the first season in which they were allowed to grow the type after the deregulation of tobacco late in 2004.
Conrad estimated burley yields at an average of 2,400 pounds per acre on plantings of 400 acres.
Only about 30 acres of the state's traditional type, Southern Maryland (Type 32), were planted, producing approximately 54,000 pounds with a yield of 1,800 pounds per acre, one third less than burley. That was no fluke — southern Maryland varieties have been bred for thinness, resulting in relatively low yields.
Those yields, along with dwindling demand, have caused production of Type 32 to plummet, and burley has become more attractive.
The state estimate complements the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture projection of burley production in October. At that time, USDA pegged burley production at 217.4 million pounds, but that figure didn't include Maryland since the state no longer participates in the federal agency's tobacco surveys.
If the state estimate of a million pounds is correct, that will make it No. 8 in burley production in the nation and raise the estimated national production to 218.4 million pounds.
But the USDA's information is somewhat out of date, and at least one reliable source says that figure is too high. A report in December from the leaf merchant Universal Leaf Tobacco said that the yield prospects for the U.S. burley crop had declined considerably since harvest.
“Excessive rainfall and damaging winds received in late September and the lack of available labor for harvesting impacted the crop more than previously thought,” the report said. “In addition, conditions have been unfavorable for stripping, with insufficient moisture at night. The crop is thinner and darker than normal.”
As a result, Universal estimated the crop size at 215.6 million pounds.
An increase in 2007 seems certain. Universal has made a preliminary projection of 248.6 million pounds.
When Maryland's Type 32 production is added and the USDA estimate of just over 2 million pounds for Pennsylvania is totaled — the only other state that produces significant amounts of Type 32 — the resulting volume is 2.144 million pounds.
North Carolina has been a hot spot for new burley growers, with acreage doubling in the Piedmont and eastern parts of the state in 2006, while it fell in the traditional production area in western North Carolina.
Burley production in these areas is agronomically sound as long as farmers choose suitable soils, says Loren Fisher, North Carolina Extension tobacco specialist.
“I think it is here to stay, and we will see more expansion if demand holds up.”
Kevin Knight of Madison N.C., found that on his farm-in the Piedmont just north of Greensboro-burley performs well.
“We have a lot of red land,” he says. “Burley really loves it. Burley looks like the way of the future for us. We are going where the money is. Flue-cured is just not as profitable as it once was.
“The problem with flue-cured is the high price of fuel. The companies seem to be leaning toward moving burley this way.”
Knight grew two acres of burley in 2005 and 33 in 2006, all for Philip Morris USA. He has grown flue-cured for 25 years.
With this rapid expansion of acreage, Knight was anxious to avoid having to hire substantially more labor. Instead, he obtained a Kirpy notching-cutting harvester.
“The notcher-cutter takes all the labor in the field out of burley harvest,” he says. “You just have two drivers. You cut the stalks down, then take them to your curing structure and hang them there.”
He cures all his burley in outdoor curing structures he has built. They are 3,000 feet long, 16 feet wide and strung with woven wire. The stalks are hung from notches.
Like many other farmers in the non-traditional burley areas, Knight has had a good experience with the type. But the enthusiasm for burley among new growers is not unanimous.
“I am not totally sold on burley yet,” says Hassel Brown of East Bend in the Piedmont of North Carolina. “Our second crop didn't do as good as the first (2005). The profit was no better on burley in 2006 than it was on flue-cured. It had been better in 2005.”
A less-than-perfect curing season was part of the problem.
“We had mixed weather, and it didn't cure out as well as we wanted it to.”
Brown doesn't think buying a notching-hanging harvester makes sense right now. He still harvests burley the traditional way, cutting the stalk close to the ground with a hatchet-like long-handled knife. Then he uses a pointed metal cone or “spear” to hang the stalks from wooden sticks which are then suspended in a curing structure.
He had two acres in 2005 and 2006 and says he will probably grow two in 2007. “That will use all the curing space we have,” he says.
He does most of his curing in two existing buildings he adapted: an old cattle barn and an old stick-type flue-cured barn from which all the chinking between its logs had been removed.
“I don't think we can justify building any new facilities for burley, not even outdoor curing structures,” says Brown. “It takes a lot of space to hang this type, about 500 linear feet per acre. That is one of the drawbacks of burley. The cost of constructing barn space is tremendous.”
Jack Loudermilk, Extension director in Yadkin County N.C., which is just west of Winston-Salem N.C., said his farmers grew twice as much burley in 2006 as in 2005.
“There is definitely interest in planting more burley,” says Loudermilk, one of the acknowledged authorities among Extension agents on burley in the Piedmont. “But if we get much more acreage, we will need more curing structures, and that is a capital investment that farmers — like Brown — are hesitant to make.
“If the companies would give some good indication they want a long-term program here, there are farmers who would go into it heavily.”
There is no doubt in Loudermilk's mind that Piedmont farmers can grow burley. “But our yields haven't been what we expected,” he says. “One problem is timing of harvest: Many of the new burley growers elect to harvest relatively late. That has an impact on your yield. We have some education to do.”