Tobacco production short of demand

A reliable estimate has suggested that production of flue-cured and burley, the two major leaf types in this country, was slightly higher than had earlier been estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Universal Leaf Tobacco Company projected in its January summary of world production that production in the United States of the two types would reach 679 million pounds, about 1.2 percent higher than the USDA's most recent estimate, which was issued in October.

Nevertheless, production of both types fell short of demand, leaders of tobacco grower organizations recently told Southeast Farm Press. That was especially apparent for the 2006 U.S. flue-cured crop.

Largely because of the effect of two tropical storms that struck eastern North Carolina during the growing season, flue-cured volume fell well short of expectations, says Arnold Hamm, general manager of the Flue Cured Tobacco Cooperative in Raleigh, N.C.

But the quality was better than average, he says.

“It appears to be a good useable crop that will find a place in the market,” notes Hamm. “Our customers seem pleased with their preliminary tests on it. We have made some good sales already on what we bought and have moved about 65 percent of it.”

The federal estimate for flue-cured production remains at 454 million pounds. But Universal Leaf pegged projection at 463 million pounds.

Not only did many farmers suffer loss of production, they also found this to be perhaps the most expensive crop ever produced. Much of that expense came from high fuel costs, but this crop was also unusually labor-intensive, says Graham Boyd, executive vice-president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina.

“The two tropical storms in one season (forced growers) to endure mitigation costs,” said Boyd at his organization's annual meeting in Raleigh. “Most growers east of I-95 had to re-stand a majority of their tobacco at least once, and many did it two or three times.”

The USDA estimate for burley was 217 million pounds, while Universal Leaf's projection was slightly lower at 216 million pounds. Production in 2005 was 203.3 million pounds.

Neither estimate is thought to include the roughly 1 million pounds of burley that was reportedly produced in Maryland in 2006 or the 800,000 pounds produced in that state in 2005. Both estimates are from the Maryland Extension Service.

Maryland is the traditional production area for the other light air-cured type grown in the U.S. besides burley. Total production of Southern Maryland Type 32 will be about 2.144 million pounds, all produced in Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to USDA and state Extension estimates.

The burley areas were spared any tropical storms, but there were some losses due to the weather. Later-planted burley seemed to have suffered more extreme conditions in the field and barns, says Scott Althauser, acting director of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, Lexington, Ky.

“We are seeing some muddy and green tobaccos showing up,” he says. “But, overall, the quality of this crop is above average. Most of the leaf shows a truer burley color than in recent years.”

That is probably because of better curing conditions.

A substantial amount of this year's burley crop was produced in new or relatively new areas for this type, including Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“Burley has migrated eastward the past two seasons, but may have reached a plateau in North Carolina for the immediate future,” says Boyd.

Production has declined in some of the historical burley areas like the mountains of western North Carolina and Virginia. But Boyd insists the spread of burley to new areas is not the cause of any such disappearance in traditional areas.

“Leaf buyers maintain that contracts are widely offered in the same production areas as in the past,” he says. “If a disappearance of acres is occurring, it is because growers are electing to exit the commodity.”

Yields of the dark types grown in Kentucky and Tennessee were average or better, says Kenneth Smith, general manager of the Eastern Dark Fired Tobacco Grower's Association in Springfield, Tenn.

He estimates production of the two fire-cured types — Type 22 Eastern dark fired and Type 23 Western dark fired — at 36 to 42 million pounds. USDA had estimated 35.3 million pounds in October and 36.9 million pounds for 2005.

For the two Kentucky-Tennessee dark air-cured types — Type 35 One Sucker and Type 36 Green River — Smith projects 10 to 13 million pounds of production, somewhat lower than USDA's projection of 15.2 million pounds for the types, but about the same or a little more than USDA's 11.5-million-pound estimate of the 2005 crop.

All the dark types in Kentucky and Tennessee produced a healthy crop in 2006, says Smith.

There has been a small shift from dark tobacco to burley in this area, and Smith says there could be some shift from fire-cured to air-cured.

There continues to be a small production of dark fire-cured tobacco (Type 21) in Virginia. After a precipitous drop in 2005 down to 731,000 pounds, production appears to have increased slightly to 735,000 pounds in 2006, according to USDA.

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