Uncertainty rules in tobacco country

As the contracting season got under way in earnest for tobacco in late January and February, it appeared that both the volume and the price would be down from 2008.

“I don’t think as many pounds will be signed as last year,” said Rick Smith, owner of Independent Leaf Tobacco Company of Wilson, N.C. “Prices will be close to 2008, maybe down 1 percent to 2 percent. That should still be enough to bring the land they want into production.”

But he said the companies will probably not contract for as big a crop as last year.

“There is a lot of uncertainty this season,” said Smith. “Congress has just legislated an excise tax increase on cigarettes to a dollar a pack. Also, domestic consumption is down, there is a Food and Drug Administration regulation that remains a threat and cigarette production continues to move off shore. All that doesn’t encourage companies to contract any more than they need.”

Smith said he thinks farmers who had contracts last year will be able to get contracts again this year, but the poundage may be less. He also thinks some growers may take a chance on growing tobacco without a contract.

The largest company, Philip Morris USA, reportedly finished contracting in Georgia recently, and one observer estimated the company took about 10 percent less poundage than in 2008. J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco specialist, said he had heard very few farmers there got additional pounds. “Most came up short of what they had.”

He knew of an instance or two where farmers who had been out of tobacco one or more years tried to get back in, but couldn’t get contracts from Philip Morris.

With lower prices and fewer pounds, tobacco farmers need to look for all the cost-saving practices they can. Moore and other Extension specialists made several recommendations for the coming season:

• Find the best price on potash. The price of sulfate of potash, the most popular sources of the fertility element, has gotten very high, and that is a big problem for tobacco growers, said Loren Fisher, North Carolina Extension tobacco specialist. “We use three times as much potassium as we do nitrogen.”

Ironically, nitrogen and phosphorus prices have actually fallen, he says.

KMag, or sulfate of potash magnesia might be less expensive sources of potash than sulfate of potash. Another, muriate of potash, is definitely cheaper, but it is not a good option on tobacco because of its chlorine content. “Too much chlorine can cause real problems in curing,” says Paul Denton, Tennessee Extension plant pathologist.

Whatever material you use, be sure to soil test, says Denton. You may have enough residual potassium that you can reduce applications this season.

A banded application is more efficient than broadcasting, says Fisher. This might be a good year to go to custom blending if you haven’t already done so, says Denton.

• There’s another low-cost way of improving production if your tobacco is following a cover crop: Plow it early, says Kenny Seebold, Kentucky Extension plant pathologist.

“This practice will ensure that plant matter decomposes thoroughly before setting time,” he says. Otherwise, soreshin and black root rot can be problems. Turn tobacco roots and stubble under soon after harvest to promote decomposition and a more rapid decline of soilborne pathogens, he says.

• Be resourceful in nematode control. The supply of the popular fumigant Telone may be down significantly, and supplies may arrive later than normal.

Alternate chemicals are available. You can substitute Chloropicrin 100 or Pic Plus for nematodes and get good control, says a spokesman for Hendrix & Dail of Greenville, N.C., which sells the products.

“The products can be put out with the same equipment, but may be more expensive,” says Georgia Specialist Moore.

• A return to Ridomil this year for black shank control. The odds favor a profit if you have a significant level of the disease, since resistant varieties are playing a much smaller part.

Mina Mila, North Carolina Extension plant pathologist, says that in farm tests over the past 10 years, 70 percent to 80 percent control of black shank has always been obtained when one pint of Ridomil was used at first cultivation and another close to layby.

Since it takes about 50 to 60 pounds of tobacco to pay for a pint of Ridomil, a 4 percent control of black shank damage in a field should pay for the treatment, she says.

Ultra Flourish should perform as well as Ridomil, but remember that it is half the strength of Ridomil so you should double the rate, she says.

• An improved rotation helps in black shank control, whatever variety or treatment you choose.

“Get in a system where you plant burley not more than two years in a row, then stay out at least two years before going back with tobacco,” says Denton.

Four years out of flue-cured is better than three, Mila says, but three years out is probably going to be the longest realistic rotation. “Three is better than two,” she notes.

• There are two good burley varieties with high levels of resistance to both races of black shank.

KT 204 offers high resistance to both races. It’s newer sister, KT 206, has the same high level of resistance to Race One as KT 204 and actually has near immunity to Race Zero, along with the added benefit of moderate resistance to blue mold.

In University of Kentucky field tests and on farms, KT 206 has outperformed other black shank-resistant varieties in terms of disease control and yield potential. So it appears to be a good choice in severe black shank situations, says Seebold.

• Race One black shank is a major problem on flue-cured tobacco in South Carolina. Farmers are searching vigorously for varieties that don’t derive their black shank resistance from the ph gene, says Dewitt Gooden, South Carolina Extension tobacco specialist.

“K 346 is one of them,” he says. “It has become more popular in South Carolina because of its bacterial wilt resistance. It performs well, but does not have the yield potential of some of our other varieties.”

Some others grow K 149, he says. “And it looks like NC 196 might be a possibility for some growers. It has the ph gene but may have more Florida 301 resistance than some non-ph gene varieties.”

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