Tobacco growers must grow more leaf for less in 2015

Tobacco growers must grow more leaf for less in 2015

It was a tense winter for tobacco farmers, as contracts for the 2015 crop were very difficult to obtain. Prices were down too, putting growers in the position of needing to make the most tobacco possible at lowest realistic production cost.

It was a tense winter for tobacco farmers, as contracts for the 2015 crop were very difficult to obtain. Prices were down, too, putting growers in the position of needing to make the most tobacco possible at lowest realistic production cost.

So while most growers had to think hard about making any big capital expenditure, you saw many of them at the trade shows in January looking for machinery or supplies that could help them grow more leaf for less.

One of them was flue-cured grower Ben Teal of Patrick, S.C., who he spoke to Southeast Farm Press at the South Carolina AgriBiz Expo in Florence on Jan. 15.

Now he is hoping for good production, and he hopes to reach that in part by capitalizing on the fact that he is planting tobacco on some very fresh land. “Some of it has been out of tobacco 10 years or longer,” he says.

To keep it productive, he pays attention to the soil.

“My No. 1 practice is to take nematode samples,” he said. “We use Telone for nematode control.”

But a change could be in the offing there. “Rickards Seeds has some nematode-resistant varieties that might fit in here. We might plant those varieties instead of using Telone.”

The newness of his land has allowed him to plant more K-326 than he might have otherwise.

Beating black shank

A new flue-cured variety could help farmers with black shank. While visiting the Expo in Florence, also on January 15, Steve Squires of Hemingway, S.C., said the flue-cured variety GL 395 did well on his farm last year, its first season of commercial availability.

He especially liked that it did well in the greenhouse.

“The plants got a great stand in the field, with a lot of vigor,” Squires told SEFP as he toured the Expo. “It grew better than any variety we had, and it held and cured well.”

It also did as well in Squires’ mechanical harvest program as any variety he had last year and appeared to yield well, although he didn’t weigh it. It is resistant to Granville wilt and both strains of black shank, he added.

“I am going to plant more of it this year,” he said.

There will be a new chemical option for controlling black shank on tobacco this year. The new fungicide Presidio may help.

At about the time of the Expo, the manufacturer Valent has obtained a tobacco label for control of black shank, and the fungicide will be available for application this season. Extension specialists strongly recommend that it be used in rotation or combination with an alternate chemical. Ridomil Gold and Ultra Flourish would be two likely choices.

Presidio can also be used to control blue mold.

Housing helps keep labor

There have been some concerns about migrant labor availability over the winter, but Teal thinks his needs are covered. “With the very large vegetable operations of Georgia not so far away, there tend to be migrant laborers looking for work in our area. I put in some labor housing just last year to keep them coming back.

“These are not H2As – a crew leader brings them in.”

He uses them just to harvest the tobacco. “I have local help that tops and suckers it,” he said.

For insurance, he keeps a mechanical harvester on hand in case there is a problem.

His company had sent out contracts more than a month earlier, before the oversupply situation became apparent.

“My acreage is pretty well flat,” he said.

He said some of his neighbors have increased their acreage for 2015 by seeking contracts to grow organic or low residue leaf. “Some who did it a few years ago and stopped are thinking about getting back in.”

Substantially all the demand for organic leaf in this country has in the past come from Santa Fe Natural Tobacco. But there is a new player in this segment of the industry. A Swiss company has reportedly contracted for the first time this season with a number of American farmers to produce organic burley and flue-cured for use in cigarettes. Few details are available, however.

With the shortage of tobacco contracts, some farmers may be tempted to plant “wildcat” tobacco. But South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said at the Expo that this would be a bad idea.

“I would urge extreme caution about planting tobacco without a contract,” he said. “There is just too much danger of financial loss.”

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