Almost all areas in the South where tobacco is grown received extended periods of abnormal heat during the 2010 growing season, much of it occurring from mid-June to the end of July.
Despite that, most growers with tobacco still in the field appeared to have a good, useable crop just before Labor Day, and leaf that had been harvested and cured already was for the most part receiving satisfactory quality grades.
But more tobacco than normal was still in the field at the beginning of September, in part because of heat-related slow growth. That raised the possibility of yield loss to frost if farmers weren’t able to complete harvest in a timely manner. And there was another problem: Leaf deterioration in the field.
“It was a very hot summer, and there was an extended dry spell in mid-season,” said Loren Fisher, North Carolina Extension tobacco specialist, in an early September interview. “Now we are seeing a lot of breakdown and deterioration in our flue-cured crop because of the heat stress.
“Some diseases are causing losses, mainly black shank and Granville wilt.”
That was a problem, because many plants were ripe and ready to harvest, he said.
“There has been some loss of yield potential already. We will just have to do the best we can from here to the end.”
But there is not really anything farmers can do in this situation except to harvest as fast as they feasibly can, said Fisher. “There are some practices that would enhance holding ability, but they would also affect maturity, so they would not be a good option.”
Rain is about the only thing that would help, by lowering the heat, he said.
If farmers can get it harvested, this should be an average crop or maybe a little better, said Fisher. But there was nothing average about the management required to get it in.
“This has been one of the more difficult crops we have had to produce,” said Fisher.
In Virginia, there was still a tremendous amount of flue-cured in the field.
"If we have an early frost, we could lose a significant amount,” said David Reed, Virginia Extension tobacco specialist. “Very few flue-cured growers say they will be finished by the end of September.
“We are looking at a mid-October finish for most, and some will take longer than that."
In South Carolina, harvest of the flue-cured crop was a little farther along than normal, with an estimated 80 percent out of the field by the week before Labor Day.
It was also hotter than most other tobacco areas, with temperatures still pushing 95 degrees in the Pee Dee, said Tré Coleman, marketing specialist for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “And we haven't gotten much rain at all."
He predicted harvest in the state would be substantially complete by mid-September.
The best Georgia flue-cured crop in recent years was about three quarters harvested by Labor Day, said J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco agronomist.
“Tobacco has held very well considering the weather conditions,” he said. "But now it is beginning to break. Growers are turning over their barns as fast as they can."
For the first time in recent years, most Georgia growers will fulfill their contracts and have additional tobacco to sell this season.
Much of their good fortune with this crop resulted from the very late appearance of tomato spotted wilt virus. The normally ravaging disease did not appear until after transplanting, and losses were unusually low.
The August USDA crop report projected flue-cured production at 454.2 million pounds, down 14 percent from 2009.
The burley crop in Kentucky faced its own deterioration problems in September, said Bob Pearce, Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist.
“Thanks to the hot, humid weather in August, we have some target spot, frogeye and a little brown spot, and a lot of the lower leaves are firing up,” he said. “That could lead to some weight loss. But it may not be as bad as it looks.”
Overall, he said the Kentucky crop is fair to good. “I think we are looking at a normal statewide yield or maybe a little more than normal."
A little over half was harvested at the end of August.
Some of the best-looking burley in Tennessee was that set relatively late, in early- to mid-June, said Paul Denton, Kentucky/Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist. It got some rain but also enough dry weather to develop a deep root system.
“It was really dry in late June, especially in southern Kentucky and in northern parts of eastern Tennessee,” he said. “Tobacco there was suffering. Then it got very hot and damaged the latest set crops. In mid July, many places started to get rain and things improved.”
Tennessee burley crop
The Tennessee burley crop appeared slightly below average, he said, but could get better with more rain.
In August, USDA projected production of burley at 189 million pounds, down 12 percent from 2009.
Yields will definitely be down on dark tobacco in Kentucky and Tennessee because of late planting, heat and drought, said Kenneth Smith, general manager of the Eastern Dark Fired Tobacco Growers Association, Springfield, Tenn.
Substantially all dark plantings are behind, both air-cured and fire-cured. Smith said. He feared some of it might not be harvested by mid-October, when frost frequently occurs.
Despite a reduced yield, Smith said Kentucky-Tennessee dark growers will produce enough leaf to deliver their contracts, since they normally planted more acreage than needed. But he definitely doesn't expect any over-production.
Virginia’s dark fire-cured tobacco had excellent potential before Labor Day, said Reed. About half was expected to be harvested by Sept. 3, and harvest should be completed before frost.
The August USDA crop report pegged fire-cured production at 47.5 million pounds, down 10 percent, and dark air-cured at 16.6 million pounds, down 2.1 percent.
In other tobacco news:
• Another tobacco grower cooperative besides the Eastern Dark Fire-Cured co-op will be located in Springfield, Tenn. Burley Stabilization Corporation is relocating its headquarters to Springfield from Knoxville, Tenn. The Knoxville office will close, but a field office will be built in Greeneville, Tenn., on the grounds of the receiving station the co-op owns there. The co-op owns a receiving station in Springfield, also, and its growers will be able to deliver at those two locations and at a delivery station in Asheville, N.C.