A flue-cured greenhouse with plants nearly ready for setting, near Snow Hill, N.C.
USDA'S INITIAL ESTIMATE
HOW MUCH TOBACCO WILL WE GROW?
In a bit of a surprise, USDA said in its Prospective Plantings Report at the end of March that acreage of the two major tobacco types and most of the minor types would change only slightly from last year. Flue-cured, at 209,000 acres, would be four percent below 2015, according to this projection, while burley, at 79,150 acres, will be up slightly from last year if the projection is correct. Let's hope the projection is close, but industry estimates that have reached this editor's ears suggest a much bigger cut in flue-cured plantings and perhaps no reduction for burley. As to the other types, the report pegged fire-cured tobacco, at 17,350 acres, would be down two percent, and dark air-cured, at 5,950 acres, down four percent. The projection was based on a survey conducted in mid March.
Among the individual states: Flue-cured: NC--160,
The effects of the mid-April freeze were minimal but may have been worst in the Pee Dee area of South Carolina, where most of the state's tobacco is grown. "Only a small percentage of our total tobacco acreage had been transplanted (by April 9)," says William Hardee, S.C. Extension agent for Horry and Marion Counties. "But for some, this will turn out to be a costly incident." Some fields were damaged to the extent that the field will need to be reset completely. "Others just needed to be walked over and re-pegged to replace the dead transplants." The damage seemed worse on the light/sandy soils, Hardee says. That indicates that the cold, hard winds could have been a major contributor to the damage in addition to the low temperatures.
Tennessee burley dodged the bullet. There was some cold weather in east Tennessee at the end of that week of April 9, says Richard Hensley, research associate at the University of Tennessee Research & Education Center, in Greeneville. But all the tobacco was still in the greenhouse at that time. "Growers were able to keep the temperature around 70 degrees," he says. "The only effect that I noticed was that the plants growing close to the curtains now look a little small compared to the ones in the middle of the houses. I think that may be associated with the temperature."
Burley planting may start April 19 in Macon County, Tn., says Keith Allen, County Extension tobacco agent. "Some of our plants have been mowed two or three times and they are ready to go out," he says. "Rains are predicted toward the end of the week. But now it is in the mid 80s, so growers want to get started." This area, east of Nashville, also had cold weather the week ending April 9, he says. "But the low temperature was closer to 40 than freezing." All plants were in greenhouses at the time, and there was no damage.
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An ample supply of transplants appears on the way in North Carolina. Substantially all the flue-cured greenhouses in N.C. have been seeded now and in most, the plants are up and growing, says Matthew Vann, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist. He thinks a few fields would probably have been set at the end of this week, but predictions of very cold weather Friday night and Saturday morning have probably delayed those plans. "Temperatures of as low as 28 degrees have been predicted in east N.C.," he says. "But if the cold doesn't last, we will still be right on schedule for transplanting."
It's been a good greenhouse season so far in southern Virginia, says Chris Haskins of Chatham, about 25 miles north of Danville. "I will have to mow my plants by the end of this week," says Haskins, who grows flue-cured and burley. "They are ahead of schedule now thanks to all the sunshine and warm weather we had in March. We didn't have much wind then, but it is blowing now." He seeded his house on March 8 and plans on starting planting by the end of April, if not sooner.
Burley seeding continues in western N.C. "Greenhouses at the Mountain Research Station at Waynesville were seeded about a week ago," says Vann (on April 5). "The seedlings have gotten off to a good start."
Don't let greenhouses get too cold. "If we can keep to a minimum temperature of 55 degrees, there shouldn't be any cold injury," Vann says.
Guest workers get more expensive: In Kentucky, the H-2A wage rate increased from $10.28 per hour in 2015 to $10.85 per hour for 2016, says Kentucky Extension economist Will Snell. That is 42 percent more than it was at the time of passage of the buyout. Accounting for transportation, housing, utilities, worker compensation insurance, fees and the other expenses associated with H-2A labor, the total 2016 wage rate for the H-2A guest worker program is likely to be in the neighborhood of $13 to $14 per hour, Snell says.
The official average price for the 2015 burley crop will likely be near the 2014 average of $1.94 per pound, Snell says. Prices held up fairly well even though there were several negative factors: Global supplies were ample entering the 2015 season, global blended cigarette sales were slumping, the U.S. dollar was strengthening and there were concerns about crop quality. But those factors were to a degree overcome by relatively strong U.S. cigarette sales, an improved U.S. burley trade balance and concerns over the effect of to El Niño weather patterns on South American and African burley crops.
With some recent U.S. burley prices rising to $2 per pound, it can be said that actual prices are returning to pre-buyout levels. "But real prices adjusted for inflation have declined by more than 20 percent relative to 2004," says Snell.
Be prepared to weed your tobacco by hand if it needs it late in the season, says Matthew Inman, N.C. Extension associate. And be sure to do it in a timely fashion so that you prevent weed seed from going back into the weed seed bank. "If suitable weed suppression has been realized in early and mid-season, weed removal by hand can be accomplished with very little added production cost," he says. "It will also aid in harvest efficiency and will reduce weed seed contamination in cured leaf."
Remember that relying on just one weed management practice is not an effective weed management program, Inman says. "It is best to use all available resources; crop rotation, cultivation, herbicides and hand weeding. Cultivation and herbicides are not perfect, and there are going to be weed escapes." When that happens, the only other option is pulling them by hand. "Doing this in a timely manner can prevent a larger weed problem down the road," he says.
TOBACCO FARMER NEWSLETTER Editor: Chris Bickers | Bickers Editing Service | 903-9 Shellbrook Ct. | Raleigh NC 27609 | 919-789-4631
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