Recently cut burley plants wilting in the field in Mitchell County, N.C. Through September 19, 71 percent of Kentucky burley, 75 percent of Tennessee burley and 50 percent of N.C. burley had been harvested, according to USDA. Photo courtesy of N.C. State University.
In eastern North Carolina, the prospects for flue-cured look dismal. There had been hope among the more optimistic observers of U.S. leaf (this writer included) that the yield in the Eastern Belt might somehow rebound from the weather problems of last summer. It didn’t, and as the last of the leaf makes its way to the market, a shortfall has become a certainty.
--The downfall of tobacco in the east began when precipitation in June hit record levels of 15 to 24 inches, followed by intense heat for two weeks in July when the heat index reached 105 degrees, followed by plenty of rain since, says Matthew Vann, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist. “Some fields were drowned to the extent that farmers abandoned them. That will have quite an effect on overall yield”.
--Prices at flue-cured auctions have been steady so far, with good prices even for lower quality grades. “Pickings sold really well,” says Kenneth Kelly, owner of Horizon Ltd. warehouse of Wilson, N.C. “Now, we are beginning to see a trend in our leaf offerings from lower stalk to upper stalk leaf, and it seems there will be as good a demand for the upstalk. But I don’t have a good feel as to where the price is going to settle.”
--You would think the price will be pretty good considering the short supply. “North and northwest of Wilson, we have a big crop, in good condition, because of opportune rains,” says one source in the Wilson market. “But east and southeast of Wilson the pounding rains took the weight right out of the tobacco. It never made a good weight.” This source knows of some good farmers in the east who were not able to produce more than 50 percent of a crop this year. “So there is very unlikely to be enough Eastern Belt leaf to go around.”
--There’s been another crop problem in the east, says the source. “We are getting leaf now from a two-week hot spell we had in August. It dried the leaf so that it is not as clean and in some cases has rim burn.”
--For the state as a whole, USDA estimates production of flue-cured of 240 million pounds, 30 percent more than a year ago. That seems extremely unlikely, but Vann thinks upwards of 200 million pounds might still be possible...Harvest of eastern N.C. flue-cured should be complete very soon, says Vann.
In the Piedmont of North Carolina, around Greensboro, much of the flue-cured crop has been harvested, and it all might be in the barn in a week or 10 days, says Vann. The tobacco in the rest of the Old Belt has a longer way to go but has a good chance of being finished before the first frost date about three weeks from now. This area was much less affected by the bad weather of 2021 and a normal yield is expected.
In Connecticut and Massachusetts, produc-duction of Connecticut broadleaf will be down this season, says Jim LaMondia, Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station plant pathologist. "But it won’t be for lack of effort on the part of the growers.” Plantings are probably the same or a little higher than in recent years, between 3,000 and 4,000 acres in the two states. But the yield and production will be down. The crop is not doing well on many farms, says LaMondia. “We have had way too much rain with a lot of variation within the valley. In places, the crop was drowned or stunted or both. Then we had wet and humid weather while we were curing, which lead to some storage mold.” Harvest is pretty much complete, but not much has been taken out of the barn. Already, though, a substantial part of this crop has been lost during the field season or to post-harvest problems. LaMondia doesn’t have a yield estimate yet, but while some crops look good, overall yields will definitely be lowered by weather conditions. The question of the day: LaMondia doesn’t know why manufacturers’ are looking for new places to grow broadleaf. “There are still growers here interested in growing it.”
In Tennessee, burley harvest is coming to an end, despite some rain delays. “We just need the spigot turned off,” says Mitchell Richmond, Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist. Much of the crop is in the barn, and the curing season has gone fairly well so far. But Richmond doesn’t know of any that has been stripped yet. He doesn’t have an estimate of production for Tennessee burley yet but notes that USDA estimated 4.5 million pounds in its last production report, nearly four percent more than in 2020.
In other tobacco news...
Little change in USDA projections: The USDA September Crop Report figures for tobacco issued on the twelfth were very similar to those in August. A version of the new data showing production by type-- and by state for flue and burley--with percentage change from a year ago follows.
· North Carolina—240 million pounds, up 30 percent;
· Virginia—30 million pounds, up 14 percent;
· Georgia--16 million pounds, down 17 percent; and
· South Carolina—16 million pounds, up 90 percent.
· All U.S. flue-cured—304.400 million pounds, up 28 percent.
· Kentucky—74 million pounds, up 2 percent;
· Pennsylvania--7.56 million pounds, up 4 percent;
· Tennessee—4.5 million pounds, down 3 percent;
· Virginia—612,000 pounds, down 10 percent;
· North Carolina—493,000 pounds, down 6 percent.
· All U.S. burley—87.165 million pounds, up 2 percent.
Fire-cured--47.5 million pounds, up 26 percent.
Dark air-cured—25.78 million pounds, up 6 percent.
Pennsylvania seedleaf –5.635 million pounds, no change.
Southern Maryland—One million pounds, up 8 percent.
Whose yield improved since August? A few states had a better yield than had been projected in the August report, indicating good growing conditions in August:
o Pennsylvania burley yield was up slightly from 2,600 pounds to 2,700 pounds,
o Pennsylvania seedleaf grown in Pennsylvania was up just a bit in yield, from 2,400 to 2,450 pounds,
o Kentucky fire-cured was up 10 percent from 3,000 pounds to 3,300 pounds, and
o Kentucky dark air-cured yield was up from 2,300 to 2,500 pounds.
o Georgia flue-cured, meanwhile, was projected down from 2,300 pounds to 2,000 pounds.
The government’s summation: 2021 tobacco production of all types is forecast at 469 million pounds, down slightly from last month but up 20 percent from 2020. Area harvested is down slightly from USDA’s previous forecast but up 13 percent from last year. Yield for the 2021 crop year is forecast at 2,102 pounds per acre, up 6 pounds from last month and 136 pounds above last year.
Auction sales for flue-cured have been strong so far, says Tommy Faulkner, auction manager at the American Tobacco Exchange in Wilson, N.C. “The trade is anticipating a short crop, so buyers are bidding aggressively on lugs and cutters, and even on some low end tobacco like pickouts.” Buyers are looking for clean styles. “You definitely want to pick out any waste," says Faulkner. "It will hurt your price.” The price has been good compared to the last few years. Faulkner estimates that quality lugs and cutters have brought from $1.35 to $1.75 per pound. File photo of flue-cured auction in Rural Hall, N.C., by Christopher Bickers.
Wrapping it up on the Deep South: Florida growers are for all practical purposes finished with the 2021 crop, says J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco specialist. “There is only one grower there that I know of who still has tobacco in the field,” he says. “Much of the crop in Florida was set out really early.”
The crop in Georgia still has a way to go, he says. “I would estimate 35 percent is still in the field.” But the leaf is coming out of the fields in a hurry now. “A few Georgia growers have finished completely, but I am expecting it to take till the middle of the month for us to completely finish harvesting.”
It isn’t a good crop in either state. “Heavy and unrelenting rains starting in June reduced yield and quality,” says Moore. “That’s sad because up to that point we had a beautiful crop with good expectations.” Rains associated with Tropical Storm Elsa and some of the other tropical storms were part of the problem. As a result, Deep South yields will be off 25 percent to 30 percent. One lesson to be learned: Tobacco does not do well in wet soils in wet years.
And there is a lesson from the delivery stations as well: “No company has a place for black oxidized leaf from the bottom of the stalk,” says Moore. “Buyers are definitely discriminating against it.” But that has been less of a problem lately. “As we are getting up the stalk, the leaf is getting clearer and has more body,” he says.
BURLEY AND DARK
This season’s dark crops are among the best in Kentucky and Tennessee in a long time, says Andy Bailey, Kentucky-Tennessee Extension dark specialist. “All the early planted crop, which was planted by the end of May, is in or nearly in. The late crop—planted in mid or late June—will be coming in in the next week or so. "At this point I would say that 70 percent of the total dark crop has been harvested. Our cigar wrapper tobacco was harvested by the 20th of August.”
USDA calculations: In Kentucky and Tennessee, burley cutting continues to move steadily with 47 and 46 percent harvested respectively as of September 5. “The tobacco crop is in mostly good condition at this time,” said USDA. In North Carolina, burley harvest was not nearly as far along, with 14 percent in the barn by that date.
Connecticut broadleaf has enjoyed better curing conditions this season than in any other year since the type was first grown in the Black Patch. “It has a more even color this year,” Bailey says. “Humidity conditions have pushed the crop to ripen earlier. Maybe 10 days. We noticed that every time we had a rain event.”
The Connecticut type may have found a place in western Kentucky and Tennessee. Jason Evitts grew it with a cousin for a second year on their farm in Hartsville, Tn. They did well enough in 2020 that they decided not to grow any burley this season, which was the first time there had been no burley on the farm in 100 years. When Tobacco Farmer Newsletter spoke to Evitts last Friday, all four acres of their Connecticut broadleaf had been harvested. But most of it was still in the barn--Leaf molds were a concern at that late date due to humid conditions. Evitts, the county Extension director in Trousdale County, says that to be successful with Connecticut, you have to change your management approach completely from the way you would approach corn or soybeans. “Management has to be intense,” he says.
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