Tobacco growers barely beat the freeze

Despite one of the longest seasons in recent memory, U.S. flue-cured tobacco growers escaped with only small losses to cold weather when freezing temperatures finally set in the last week of October.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Hassel Brown, who grows flue-cured in East Bend, N.C., near Winston–Salem. “You wouldn’t say it was a late freeze, but it was just late enough for almost everyone to get their tobacco in.” It took place in Brown’s area on Oct. 30. “Most farmers had finished up earlier that week. I know of only two growers in this area who still had tobacco left out after the freeze, and it was just a little.”

But it was a close call. In North Carolina, harvest is usually complete soon after Sept. 30. This season, an estimated 20 percent remained to be harvested on Oct. 1. Two weeks later, 10 percent remained unharvested, mainly in the Old Belt.

Frost can be expected any time after Oct. 15. Fortunately, the first frost didn’t occur until Oct. 20 in Virginia and a day or two later in North Carolina. And it wasn’t a killing frost. The first actual freeze in most of the Old Belt occurred either Oct. 28, 29 or 30, depending on location.

“Many crops still in the field as late as Oct. 28 were destroyed rather than salvaged,” says David Reed, Virginia Tech Extension tobacco specialist.”

Little if any flue-cured was harvested after Nov. 1.

Is there a lesson to be learned from such a late crop? “The only thing is to look at nitrogen rates and stay close to recommended levels,” Reed says.

Weather conditions set farmers up for a late season in 2008, and this was certainly not the year to over-fertilize. But in current conditions, no year is going to a good one for too much nitrogen.

“As concerned as we need to be about the cost of production, avoiding over-application of nitrogen would be a good point to start to address costs,” says Reed.

Burley growers in Tennessee have increased production an apparent 25 percent from their drought-stricken 2007 crop. Paul Denton, University of Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist, estimated that yield may average 2,000 pounds per acre compared to only 1,600 pounds per acre last year.

Plantings are believed to be about the same as last year, 13,000 acres, and production would then be 26 million pounds.

How did they do it? Unlike Kentucky, planting in most of Tennessee took place on a normal schedule. “The earliest- and latest-planted did the best,” says Denton. “The late crop especially benefited from rain that came in from remnants of the hurricanes and tropical storms.”

Also boosting yield: There was no blue mold at all in Tennessee this year, he said, and black shank losses were minimal, as they have been every year since the varieties KT 204 and KT 206 — both resistant to both black shank strains — came on the market.

In Kentucky, burley production is expected to fall from about 160 million pounds last year to around 145 million pounds this year, not because of bad weather but because of a 10-percent reduction in planting, says Bob Pearce, University of Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist.

Yields will be up a bit, perhaps 100 pounds from 2007. “We managed to harvest the crop before the frosts and freezes in October,” says Pearce. “The tobacco cured early was not too bad, better than expected considering how dry it had been.”

A portion of the crop was barned under cold conditions, and there was some fear of green color as a result.

The drought set in around the first of July in central Kentucky, and a little later in the rest of the state, Pearce said. The season’s tropical storms had not provided much relief in this state. But Ike brought high winds that did some damage to tobacco still in the field and to some barns and greenhouses.

A bigger potential problem was that burley harvested in late September or later may be subject to temperatures below the optimal level.

“If temperatures in the first two weeks in the barn fall below 50 degrees F., we expect some green color in the leaf because cold temperatures set a green color,” said Pearce. “There is definitely a quality concern. We tell farmers to close the barn up tight and stall for better weather.”

But the cure seemed to have gone reasonably well. “The tobacco that is in the barn is curing a little faster than we would like,” says Pearce. “We could use a little more humidity to help the cure.”

Brown in North Carolina is one of many flue-cured growers who have added burley to their farms since deregulation.

He built a new curing structure for this crop. “It is basically a shed that is open on all sides,” he said. “We hang it on sticks from high-tensile wire we use the way you would use tier poles.”

There are two tiers.

“We drive a cart full of sticks into the shed, and one man standing in the cart can load the second tier. Workers on the ground can load the first tier.”

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TAGS: Tobacco
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