The fortunes of the 2013 tobacco crop turned very quickly this summer, remembers Steve Walker, Macon County, Tenn., Extension tobacco agent.
On July 2, he toured the county’s burley crop. “It was the best crop I had ever seen.
But on July 4, the rain started falling torrentially, and it continued on the fifth and sixth.
“By July 7, our crop had become one of our worst. It was drowned out all over the county,” said Walker.
There appeared to be a loss of about 40 percent afterward.
“But some of the crop recovered to a degree, and now (mid-August) the damage looks like 25 to 30 percent,” said Walker.
In Ohio, the damage on burley was made worse by sunny days that soon followed the holiday rains. “The (tobacco) crop can survive saturated soils,” said David Dugan, Ohio Extension tobacco educator. “There can besome stunting, and that normally will result in some yield loss.
“But the yield loss can go to 100 percent if the hot sun comes out shortly after the rain and while the soil is still heavily saturated.”
The rains turned a good crop into a mediocre or bad one in much of the burley belt areas. The effect of all the rain was especially devastating in the Bluegrass.
Bob Pearce, Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist, said at the time the Independence Day Weekend deluge had caused the most widespread damage he had ever seen from a single weather event. Six weeks later, when the loss from abandoned fields and from reduced yield on harvested fields are added together, the losses appeared to him to amount to 25 percent.
Bluegrass farmer Jerry Rankin of Danville, Ky., said in a July 31 interview that he was at that moment harvesting burley from one field, which was way ahead of schedule because of the rain.
“The water ran in rivers down the rows, and with so much of it, it couldn’t run off quickly, “he said. “When it did drain, the tobacco was stressed and some took on black shank.”
In the mountain burley area of southwest Virginia, farmers didn’t get the overwhelming precipitation that many others did. “But we still got way too much water,” said Danny Peek, Extension agronomist in Virginia. “The yield will be affected. We could end up with 1,700 pounds per acre, or it might make up to 1,800 pounds.”
The chance of getting any sort of acceptable yield from his most affected fields was minimal, so Rankin decided to harvest and salvage what he could. It wasn’t easy: Curing was difficult because of the condition of the plants.
“It appears to me our yields will be 25 percent short of what we would have had,” said Rankin. “It might be more.”
Most flue-cured areas got more than enough rain too, though not as much of it in one storm. In the Willacoochee and Nashville area of south Georgia, 56 inches of rain fell through the end of July, more than normally falls in a whole year, and other areas had similar experiences.
"Besides drowning, we have had a good bit of nitrogen loss, and also damage to the root systems," said J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco agronomist. "Yields will be down and quality reduced."
In South Carolina, there was season-long disagreement about how many acres of flue-cured had been planted. The USDA had projected that plantings were down from 12,000 acres in 2012 to 9,000 acres this year, which would be a drastic reduction. Extension agronomist Dewitt Gooden thinks South Carolina growers planted at least 12,000 acres — last season's acreage — and maybe a little more.
Thanks to the rain, he said practically all the tobacco in South Carolina would be harvested by Labor Day, somewhat earlier than normal.
In North Carolina, farmers were harvesting all across the state as August drew to an end. Some in the Coastal Plain had finished completely.
“It's difficult to say how much of the crop has been harvested, or even how many operations are completely finished, because there is a lot of variability across the state,” said Matthew Vann, North Carolina Extension crop science associate. “Overall, the crop is a little light in terms of weight, but given the difficult season we've had, no one is surprised at that.”
20 to 25 percent loss
The best estimate he had was that total loss on North Carolina flue-cured was somewhere in the 20 to 25 percent range. “But the crop is curing very well, and everything I've seen looks very good,” said Vann. “We will have another top quality crop, and that's really a testament to our growers.”
In Wilson County, N.C., one of the major flue-cured counties in the state, growers had for the most part completed their second harvest by the last week of August and were beginning to harvest their large third and final pulling.
To date the quality and yield was better than might have been expected considering the rain that fell almost constantly from mid-June to early-July.
Norman Harrell, the county tobacco agent, said that since the rains abated, the crop had been fortunate to receive timely rains and moderate temperatures.
“The crop responded better than I expected,” said Harrell. “Farmers helped themselves by applying additional nitrogen (to make up for leaching). The crop filled out, took on a good color and got better holdability.”
Harrell said it appears the quality of the eastern North Carolina leaf will be satisfactory. But the yield will be short. “We will be down at least 20 percent.”
But there was relatively little field abandonment in Wilson County.
In Virginia, flue-cured volume is definitely up this year, but sources said the USDA estimate of 52.9 million pounds is way too high. One says, "I don't see it going much higher than 47.5 million pounds."
Florida got plenty of rain, but nowhere near as much as most of the tobacco belt. Harvest was all but complete in mid-August, and growers had produced good usable leaf that graded well, said J. Michael Moore, Extension tobacco specialist for Florida.
There was an abundance of rain here too, but the crop seems to have fared better than in any flue-cured state except Virginia.
Yield was a little short because of the rain, but this may end up being remembered as a better-than-average crop for the Floridians.