A Dismal Season for Tobacco Ends in the US
Buyers place their bids for flue-cured tobacco offered for sale at the Old Belt Tobacco Sales warehouse in Rural Hall, NC.
By Chris Bickers
The 2015 tobacco season in the United States will be remembered as one in which the production prospects started low and just kept going down. When the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its last projection of tobacco production on October 9, it placed burley production at 152 million pounds, 5 million pounds less than it estimated in its first report of the year and 29% less than last year. It put flue-cured production at 468 million pounds (m.lbs.), 5 m.lbs. less than its original estimate and 18% less than last year.
Among the individual states (USDA projection for 2015 and change from 2014):
BURLEY: Kentucky – 114 m.lbs., down 30%; Tennessee – 19.2 m.lbs., down 29%; Pennsylvania – 11.2 m.lbs., down 11.5%; Ohio – 3.3 m.lbs., down 22%; Virginia – 2.1 m.lbs., down 26%; North Carolina – 2 m.lbs., down 23%.
FLUE-CURED: North Carolina – 365.5 m.lbs., down 19%; Virginia – 48.3 m.lbs., down 10%; South Carolina – 27.1 m.lbs., down 18%; Georgia – 27.3 m.lbs., down 20%.
OTHER TYPES: Fire-cured – 56.9 m.lbs., down 3%; Dark air-cured – 17.6 m.lbs., up 0.75%; Connecticut/Massachusetts cigar types – 4.1 m.lbs., down 1%; Southern Maryland – 3.6 m.lbs., down 21%; Pennsylvania seedleaf – 3.9 m.lbs., down 18%.
Reports from farms document that it was a difficult season. In Oxford, NC, north of Raleigh, the weather started off wet, then turned dry.
“When we started harvest, the ground leaves were not good at all,” says Carl Watson, who directs tobacco production (all flue-cured) at the NC Department of Agriculture tobacco research station in Oxford. “We started irrigating, trying to get the sap back into the leaves.” The second and third pullings cured better, but then the rain started falling late. “The crop took up fertilizer and it turned green.”
Then killing frosts took place in North Carolina and Virginia on October 18 and 19 and many growers had to give up on harvesting the small amount remaining in the field.
“There is very little left that we can pull and harvest now,” said David Reed, Virginia Extension tobacco specialist, at the time. After several years when the first killing frost fell relatively late, these two occurred at about the historical average date, catching farmers by surprise. “But the severity of the frost was the problem more than the timing,” says Reed. “There were temperatures as low as 26 degrees.” He estimated that about 400 barns of flue-cured were lost, maybe 1¼ m.lbs. That would be about 2% of the expected Virginia flue-cured crop.
For Ben Teal of Patrick, SC, 2015 was the worst in his young farming career. “I made good pounds, but the quality was poor. The grades were just not there.” The main factor was the heat, said Teal, also a flue-cured grower. “We had extensive heat earlier. The leaf got sunbaked from the high temperatures. Then we got all that rain (around October 1-3).”
Leaf started pouring out of the remaining fields soon after the torrential rain, and it caused a real problem for farmers who found themselves short of curing barns. “One of my neighbors has a lot left in the field and not enough barn space to cure it all,” Teal says. “I’m letting him use three of my barns to keep his harvesters rolling.”
Teal’s farm is a little north of where the well-publicized floods in Myrtle Beach and Charleston. He got around nine inches here. “Fortunately, the majority of the crop was in barns when the flood came.”
In Owensboro, KY, Rod Kuegel, a dark and burley grower had a similar report. “The quality was decent, but the weight was off considerably,” he said. “Burley may be down 20-25%. The dark types are not down as far but are still reduced, maybe 15-20%.” The weather had two extremes, he said. “Very, very wet and very, very dry. It was wet till August, but then there was no more rain after that.”
Heavy early-season rains in parts of Tennessee lead to problems with bacterial soft rot that were significant in some burley fields, says Eric Walker, Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist.
“There was some leaf loss,” he said. “Target spot was also bad in some areas. A number of fields got blue mold throughout the season, but yield losses were minimized.”
Most blue mold sightings were in or near Greene County, where the season’s initial outbreak was discovered on June 1, he said.