As harvest got under way, the tobacco crop in eastern North Carolina appeared to have bounced back from the hurricane-induced disaster conditions of 2011.
In Salemburg, N.C, about 70 miles south of Raleigh and on the northern edge of the area damaged by Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27 of last year, brothers Sherrill and Clay Strickland were looking at a crop that appeared headed for a very respectable yield.
“We have some good fields and some bad fields, and the intense heat we had in June and July had an effect,” said Sherrill Strickland. “But now (July 15), it is looking real good overall. We got good rains a few days ago, and the top is looking very green. The bottom stalk is not much, but our tips are going to turn out really good. This crop should definitely be a better one than last year.”
That seemed to be the situation for most flue-cured growers in July.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected on July 11 that flue-cured production in the U.S. this year will reach 432 million pounds, up a whopping 25 percent from 2011.
Planted area for flue-cured is four percent below last year at 199,000 acres. Yield per acre is forecast at 2,173 pounds, up 507 pounds from a year ago.
But expected production was still down in South Carolina and Georgia because of fewer acres planted.
By state, the USDA reported:
• North Carolina's flue-cured was rated in mostly fair to good condition. Production levels recovered from last year's hurricane damage, with yield projected at 2,200 pounds per acre, up 650 pounds from last season. Production is estimated at 338 million pounds, up 36 percent from last season. Many farmers had started to irrigate in mid July as weather was extremely hot in many growing areas.
• Virginia — the only state to see an increase in flue-cured plantings — was progressing well in mid-July with the majority of the crop rated in fair to good condition. Production was estimated at 46.2 million pounds, up nearly three million pounds from last season on 7.7 percent more planted acreage.
• South Carolina production had been affected by unusually cool, wet weather through July which led to some reports of thin and yellowing plants. Projected yield was 1,800 pounds per acre, only 100 pounds more than in the hurricane year. Production was projected at 24.3 million pounds, down nearly eight percent from 2011 on 13 percent less planted acreage.
Georgia crop fair to good
• Georgia plantings were reported mostly in fair to good condition as of July 1. Temperatures for the past month were above normal and rainfall was very spotty. USDA projected that yields would be about the same as last year. Planted acreage is down an estimated 1,400 acres or 11.7 percent, while production is also estimated down 11.7 percent at 23.1 million pounds.
The Florida flue-cured is not included in the USDA production report, but Georgia-Florida Extension Tobacco Specialist J. Michael Moore reported in mid-July that the crop was damaged but not destroyed when Tropical Storm Debby blew through on June 26-27, but there were significant effects from the six to 22 inches of rainfall that fell.
"Roots were suffocated, and plants lacked the ability to take up water, nutrients and oxygen,” he said. “Wilted leaves were scalded and burned. Drowning damage was compounded by extreme temperatures and bright sunshine.”
Although losses are heavy, a large portion of the Florida crop and a majority of the Georgia crop was not damaged, said Moore.
“But those in the Live Oak, Fla., area will not be so lucky,” he said. “There is lots of drowning there, and there will be scalding from the hot sun."
Neither burley or any of the other tobacco types were included in USDA's July 11 production report, but information on plantings had been released in the agency's annual acreage report issued June 29.
The acreage report indicated that a wave of last minute plantings had caused burley acreage to swell over what had earlier been predicted.
Burley plantings are now projected at 96,800 acres, nearly nine percent over last season. Most of the increase came from the two leading burley states, Kentucky and Tennessee, and there was also significant increases in Virginia and Ohio.
• Kentucky's burley acreage projection rose almost 11 percent over 2011 at 71,000 aces.
• Tennessee burley plantings are up seven percent at 15,000 acres.
• Virginia burley is up an impressive 35 percent at 2,700 acres.
• Ohio is up a healthy 12.5 percent at 1,800 acres.
• But North Carolina burley is down 30 percent from last season at 1,600 acres.
• Pennsylvania burley plantings are projected down six percent at 4,700 acres.
• Southern Maryland (Type 31), an air-cured type similar to burley which is produced almost entirely in Pennsylvania, is down three percent at 2,900 acres, while fire-cured is down 6.4 percent at 15,350 acres, dark air-cured is down 16.3 percent at 4,600 acres and cigar types are up 17.2 percent at 5,090 acres.
An outbreak of blue mold in Pennsylvania spread considerably in June in the state's two leading tobacco counties — Lancaster and Chester. Some fields had significant sporulating populations. Most farmers sprayed aggressively.
But new reports of the disease had tailed off by mid-July, and Jeff Graybill, Pennslyvania Extension agronomy educator, said intense summer heat and drought may have halted the spread of the disease.
The damage was worse on burley than on the other types grown in the state — Pennsylvania seedleaf, Southern Maryland and Green River dark air-cured.
There were a few fields where the damage went systemic, he said.