Across tobacco country, crops wilt from rain
By BRUCE SCHREINER
and MARTHA WAGGONER
THE Associated Press | July 21,2013
Harnett County farmer Kent Revels inspects one of his tobacco fields in Fuquay Varina, N.C. Heavy rain across the nation’s tobacco-growing territories has soaked the dry weather-loving plants to the point that many can’t be saved. Revels estimates up to a third of his yield has already been damaged.
LOUISVILLE — Jason Elliott had one of his best stands of burley tobacco growing until the rains started. Five days and seven inches of precipitation later, about a quarter of his crop was ruined, trimming thousands of dollars from his payday when he hauls his leaf to market in a few months.
Fields all over tobacco country have been soaked, and without a good stretch of dry weather in coming weeks, Elliott’s predicament could play out many times over. In Kentucky alone, the nation’s second-leading producer, the toll could hit as much as $100 million if the crop doesn’t rebound. More than half of top grower North Carolina’s crop is in jeopardy.
It threatens to become the latest setback for a sector of agriculture that has endured sluggish prices, higher production costs and uncertain markets due to smoking bans.
In Kentucky, the thunderstorms that started two days before Independence Day and continued into the weekend caused tobacco plants to wilt and collapse about a month before burley harvest shifts into high gear. Some of the plants at Elliott’s Lincoln County farm slumped over, barely boot-top high. Others stood but looked sickly.
“It’s just got a real pale color to it,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t have the good green tobacco color that it should have.”
Damage appeared to be heaviest in south-central Kentucky, a prime burley tobacco region where as much as 60 percent to 80 percent of the crop was affected, said Bob Pearce, a University of Kentucky burley extension specialist.
“This is the most widespread and significant amount of damage I’ve seen from a single event like this,” Pearce said. “The number of (damage) reports that I’m getting is kind of unprecedented. It’s been a game-changer.”
Kentucky is the nation’s leading producer of burley tobacco, an ingredient in many cigarettes. Based on last year’s prices, the downpours could cut the statewide yield by up to 25 percent, Pearce said.
Rain gauges have been overflowing as well in North Carolina, where flue-cured tobacco reigns.
Kent Revels, who grows flue-cured tobacco in Harnett County, N.C., said he’s measured more than 30 inches of rain since May 1, with 17 in June — when the average is just over 3 inches. Rain continued into July.
“We’re doing the things we normally do,” said Revels, who farms 260 acres of tobacco. “We’re just fighting the rain to do it. I’m not throwing in the towel, but it’s going to be a short crop. It all depends on what the weather will be from here on out.”
North Carolina farmers planted 170,000 acres of tobacco in 2013, up 4 percent from 2012, said state Agriculture Department spokesman Brian Long.
In Kentucky, burley growers planted an estimated 78,000 acres this year, a 4,000-acre increase from a year ago, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s field office in the state.
Tobacco is known as a resilient crop, and the roots can dry out if the rain stops. But so much rain makes for a thinner crop that doesn’t weigh as much as it should, and the marketing system is based on dollars per pounds.
Regional agronomist Don Nicholson estimated that up to 80 percent of North Carolina tobacco farmers will be able “to turn this crop around” with a stretch of normal summer temperatures and dry conditions.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about tobacco,” he said. “You can’t count the plant out until you destroy the crop. It can be extremely dry and you get a few rains and you can make a crop. Or it can be really wet and it gets dry, and the plants put a root system down.”
In Tennessee, yields will be down from a year ago due to a wet spring and early summer, said Bob Miller, a tobacco researcher for UK and the University of Tennessee.
“We’ve had way more water than tobacco likes,” Miller said.
In Virginia, the nation’s No. 3 tobacco producer and home to Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA, the rainy conditions prevented tobacco plants from setting deep roots.
“In terms of damage or loss, we haven’t lost very much. It’s been limited,” said David Reed from Virginia Tech’s Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “We’re going to be OK unless it absolutely turns off dry in August.”