Tobacco crop lighter than normal

Warren Sloan put a lighter-than-usual first cropping of tobacco in the barn the other day. It took an extra two acres to fill a barn. He's hoping summer rains fill out the rest of his crop and diseases wane as he prepares to market his crop under contract for the first time.

Like many of his neighbors, the Duplin County, N.C., farmer has battled heavy disease pressure this year, especially with tomato spotted wilt virus and Granville wilt. Around 15 inches of rain hasn't helped the crop, either.

Add the first year of widespread contracting to these workaday concerns and Sloan is a busy man. He's added cotton to the usual mix of cucumbers, soybeans, and tobacco.

However tough the situation may be in the field, tobacco is still the moneymaker on his farm in southern Duplin County. That's in spite of successive quota cuts, which have trimmed his production a little more than half the level it was three years ago. He currently grows 25 acres of tobacco.

“I hope there's a future in tobacco,” Sloan says, folding his arms, “because it's all I know to do.”

Sloan signed a contract with Philip Morris to market his crop. “This year, I went to contract a few farms, but it was kind of put to me that it was all or nothing.

“I didn't like it at the time — and I still don't like it — but it was either ‘we want it all or we don't want none of it.’ I felt like if I didn't get in this year then I might not get in at all. A lot of people, I believe, see this as an opportunity to keep growing tobacco. They don't want to be left out of growing tobacco.”

He says the above-support price offered under the contracts eventually convinced him to sell his tobacco directly.

The reason? Tobacco is still a solid crop. “It's something you can take to the bank,” Sloan says.

Sloan's been banking on tobacco now for 21 years. This year has been a tough one in the field for him.

In the greenhouse, Sloan began the season with high expectations. But instead of treating with Admire in the greenhouse, he used it in the transplant water. He could see where the treatment was beneficial in the field, because he didn't get around to treating another field where disease is now rampant.

“It's had anything that could happen to it,” Sloan says, pointing out TSWV and Granville wilt in one field.

He hasn't been alone in suffering Granville wilt problems, says Bryant Spivey, Duplin County Extension agent. Some 20 to 30 percent of the tobacco fields in Duplin County have some level of Granville wilt. “Wet weather seems to favor Granville wilt — and we've had plenty of wet weather, especially early in the growing season.”

Tom Melton, North Carolina State University Extension plant pathologist, recommends rotation, resistance and fumigants for the control of Granville wilt.

TSWV is yet another disease that's given North Carolina producers localized fits this year.

“The tomato spotted wilt started when the tobacco was set out,” Sloan says. Vectored by and spread by thrips, TSWV infects a number of crops, including tobacco. Research has shown that the thrips over-winter in vegetation.

TSWV was localized in North Carolina this season, tending to take out plants early in the season.

There are control methods for Granville wilt; none for TSWV.

“It's going to be thin,” Sloan says. “The crop has just had too much water.”

Actually, it's been a seesaw battle with too much and too little water, Sloan says. Early on, it was dry; then it got real wet. In early July, it was back to dry.

In early July, Sloan had already knocked off the lugs or the first cropping of tobacco. Many growers have gone to leaving the first crop in the field instead of harvesting it.

“It's a lot easier to knock it off and leave it in the field than it is to carry it to the barn and then throw it away,” Sloan says. Low prices in the past several years have made lugs an added cost for producers to harvest and cure.

So far this harvest season, Sloan has noticed a lighter crop.

Too much rain is the culprit. Two things made for a lighter crop: The deeper roots of the plant rot off and fertilizer moves deeper into the soil. In short, there are fewer roots to absorb the fertilizer needed to mature the crop.

“It's taking two extra acres to fill up a barn than what it should take,” Sloan says. “The tobacco is standing out there like stove pipes. The tips have never filled out.”

Still, timely rains could come and fill out the crop.

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