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ALBANY, Ga. (AP) _ Southern flue-cured tobacco growers, plagued by drought, rampant plant disease and untimely rainfall, have suffered through one of their worst seasons in memory and lost millions.

Tobacco sales end in about a week in Georgia, but in Virginia and North Carolina, where some drought-stricken fields are two to three weeks behind schedule, markets may remain open through mid-November.

``It's been one thing after another,'' said J. Michael Moore, a University of Georgia tobacco specialist. ``The top of the list is ... the worst damage from tomato spotted wilt on tobacco in the United States in the history of the crop.''

Georgia growers should have sold about 60 million pounds of the golden leaf, but probably will sell only 50 million pounds or less, largely because of spotted wilt, he said.

Spread by tiny insects known as thrips, the disease has been a problem in Georgia since 1985, but it returned with a vengeance this year and also intensified in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Spotted wilt kills plants at random, leaving spaces in the tobacco rows. This causes a fertilizer overload for the remaining plants. The ``green effect'' prevents plants from ripening on time and can lead to undesirable, harsh tobacco.

With a shift to contract sales, growers have bypassed auction warehouses and sold the bulk of their crop directly to tobacco companies at ``receiving stations.'' But those contracts call for tobacco to be a certain grade, and if it's below grade, the price will be too.

``Almost all the receiving stations had tobacco that was too green for their specifications,'' Moore said. ``I have heard of a number of farmers who have taken tobacco home, rather than sell it for as little as 40 cents a pound.'' That's less than a fourth of recent average prices.

``We had tobacco that we had to bring home,'' said Steve McMillan, a south-central Georgia grower who lost about 60 percent of his plants to spotted wilt. ``We couldn't get a bid on it. It was over-fertilized for the plant population. In some of the fields, I don't think the tobacco would ever ripen.''

Another indication of the reluctance of tobacco companies to buy lower-quality tobacco is the amount going to the Raleigh, N.C.-based Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. The grower-owned cooperative buys tobacco when buyers are unwilling to pay at least a penny more than the government support price, then stores it at grower expense until it is sold.

This week, 45 percent of all auction sales had gone to Stabilization, compared with about 15 percent at the same point last year.

The flue-cured belt was too dry for most of the season, then some fields were swamped with excessive rainfall as Tropical Storm Hanna swept through the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and the Carolinas. Hanna came on the heels of Tropical Storm Gustav, which brushed eastern North Carolina before heading into the Atlantic to become a hurricane.

McMillan, who farms with his brother, said it's been a trying season.

``It think it's one we want to get behind us,'' he said.

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On the Net:

Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp.: http://www.ustobaccofarmer.com/