Three words that sum up 2020: Too much rain. “We put down more nitrogen in leaching adjustments than in any of my 44 years of farming,” says Randy Edwards (inset), owner of Lake Wendell Farming Company in Wendell, N.C. “We had way too much rain, from 10 inches to as much as 18 inches above normal on most of our fields. The adjustment helped but we have a light crop.” Thanks to the low weight, harvest went fast, and Edwards and his family finished the last week of September. The target date at the beginning of the season had been October 15. Above:Workers prepare flue-cured leaf for marketing at Edwards' farm. File photos by Chris Bickers.
With all the moisture, flue-cured growers in certain areas may have dodged a bullet. “Earlier in the year, with so much rain and farmers trying to apply nitrogen to adjust for leaching, there seemed a danger that the crop might stop growing and we might end up with a very late crop and get an early frost particularly because of the hot/dry July we experienced,” says Matthew Vann, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist. “But the Eastern Belt crop has been largely been removed from the field, and a final push is going on in the Old Belt. No frost is predicted in the near future so I think everything will be harvested in time.”
Disappointing crop in South Carolina: Harvest ended about three weeks ago, Matthew Inman, S.C. Extension specialist, and it wasn’t anywhere near a bumper crop. “It is going to be light all across the state. “Some good tobacco has been sold, but I am hearing about some that is not so good. It was another tough year.” There were a number of weather problems but perhaps the worst was heavy rains in middle May. “We had a lot of rain in the Pee Dee (in the northeast)—14 or more inches in general and in some places up to 20 inches.”
The soil never dried out after that. “As a result, the crop didn’t have a root system. Our farmers tried to make leaching adjustments, but the results varied. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.” Due to the poor root system, plant uptake of that fertilizer was delayed. “Late in the season, we had a lot of green tops because the plants finally started taking some of the fertilizer from the leaching adjustments.” Yield will probably fall to 1,500 to 1,800 pounds per acre, says Inman. “Some farmers have told me this was their worst yield ever.” Quality will be below average across the board, he says.
Flue-cured in Virginia is 94 percent harvested. Harvest in Georgia and Florida has been complete for several weeks.
The Kentucky burley crop is 98 percent cut and 28 percent stripped, says USDA, with increased reports of houseburn. The small North Carolina burley crop, estimated at about a half million pounds, is 65 percent harvested.
In middle Tennessee, cold weather is predicted for the weekend, possibly including frost, says Keith Allen, Extension director in Macon County near Nashville. “But we are nearly 100 percent harvested now, so we shouldn’t have much damage.” The county, which grew 1,000 to 1,200 acres of burley this year and 300 to 400 acres of dark air-cured and Connecticut broadleaf, had a good crop in the field late in the season. “But then we had five to eight inches of rain in a short period of time at the end of September, and it really hammered the tobacco,” Allen says. “Now, it is just fair.”
DARK & WRAPPER
Harvest of Kentucky-Tennessee dark types is nearly done. All of the dark air-cured tobacco and 95 percent of the fire-cured had been harvested by October 10, says Andy Bailey, Extension dark tobacco specialist stationed in Princeton, Ky. “We have just a few acres left,” he says. “We should be finished by October 15.”
How is broadleaf being cured in the Black Patch? Few if any barns have been built to cure the new cigar types from Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Instead, burley and dark air-cured barns are being used, says Bailey. “Even some fire-cured barns have been used. They are not ideal for air curing but can be made useable with a drier curing season and the ability to use heat under the tobacco.” For Kentucky and Tennessee as a whole, Bailey projects six million pounds of production for the Connecticut type and 1.8 million pounds for the Pennsylvania type. He pegged production at 41 million pounds for dark fire-cured and 16 million pounds for dark air-cured.
Connecticut and Pennsylvania are being grown in several other Southern tobacco states, including North Carolina. “But not much,” says Vann. “I would be surprised if there were more than 50 acres in this state this year.” There is some question as to how well cigar wrapper tobacco would ever fit into a flue-cured scheme. Dark tobacco growers with their history of producing wrappers will have the best chance at success with these types.
This goes back a few years but at one time dark air-cured production was promoted in Eastern N.C. It was not a good fit, and Vann doesn’t know if any farmers are growing it now. But there remain a small number of growers—mostly north and east of Raleigh—who still grow burley on flue-cured farms, as was popular for a while after the buyout.
How much production USDA projects as of October 1 (by type and percentage change from 2019)--
Flue-cured:234.9 million pounds, down 20.9 percent.
Burley: 79.6 million pounds, down 14.1 percent.
Fire-cured: 41.5 million pounds, down 9.2 percent.
Dark air cured: 24.6 million pounds, up 1.2 percent.
Southern Maryland: 960,000 pounds, down 58 percent.
Pennsylvania seedleaf: 5.75 million pounds, up four percent.
United States:387.5 million pounds, down 17 percent.