Across tobacco country, crops wilt from rain
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — 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. Rains has 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.”
Despite the plants being shallow-rooted and having a thin leaf, Virginia has the potential for a good crop, he said.
The prospect of lower yields in Kentucky comes as burley farmers hoped to reap some of their highest leaf prices since the 2004 tobacco buyout. The buyout ended a system in which tobacco growers sold their crop under federal production and price controls dating back to the Depression. Tobacco now is mostly grown under contracts between farmers and tobacco companies.
Last year’s burley and dark tobacco crops in Kentucky exceeded $400 million in sales for the first time since the buyout. And until the recent wave of rainfall, this year’s crops had the same potential due to burley prices expected to be around $2 per pound, said UK agricultural economist Will Snell.
For Elliott, the 34-year-old who farms the same ground tended by his grandfather and father, tobacco accounts for nearly a third of his income from a diversified operation that includes cattle, corn and soybeans. While his tobacco has suffered from the rains, his corn and soybeans have thrived, a trend being seen across most of Kentucky.
Elliott said he will still plant burley next year, regardless the outcome this year.
“It’s been too good to me over the years,” he said. “I can’t just up and quit.”
Waggoner reported from Raleigh, N.C. She can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Associated Press writers Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va., and Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., also contributed to this report.