|By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — In a year faced with sweeping changes for tobacco farmers, a pristine crop was a must to assure growers of a profitable year, but with drought conditions overtaking most of the state, this year’s burley crop promises to be anything but pristine in most cases.
The Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service recently estimated a 31 percent drop in burley yields versus 2004 with an expected 142.5 million pounds coming from 75,000 acres of planted tobacco, the fewest pounds since 1927.
Conditions have deteriorated to the point that Gov. Ernie Fletcher sent a request to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns asking for federal disaster assistance for Kentucky farmers due to expected crop losses resulting from the drought which started in February of this year.
“Kentucky has experienced higher than normal temperatures and limited rainfall this summer causing the state to move deeper into a drought status, as supported by the Palmer Drought Index and the Crop Moisture Index,” wrote Fletcher.
“The Bluegrass area is now in an extreme drought status with other areas of the Commonwealth classified as severe.”
University of Kentucky tobacco economist Will Snell said this year’s crop is pivotal for future crops.
“We knew acres would be down but certainly yields have been disappointing,” he said. “Quality is a concern as well, especially given the dry curing conditions and disease damage. It is never a good year to have both quantity and quality concerns, but especially this year as the first one without a safety net.
“If (tobacco companies) discount too much on quality they will lose a lot of producers from a very depleted pool of growers. This has been a very expensive crop to raise. Actions this market season will have a big impact on the supply in future years.”
This is the first year burley producers haven’t had a price support or quota system in place since the Depression. Most growers have contracted with tobacco companies in order to sell their crop.
This is due to last year’s quota buyout in which quota owners and growers were compensated for those price supports and growing quotas. With the “safety net” gone, many farmers chose to get out this year with many more riding the hopes of the current crop.
Kentucky Ag Commissioner Richie Farmer urged the USDA to respond swiftly to Fletcher’s request for assistance.
“With drought conditions prevailing throughout the state, Kentucky’s farmers need help,” Farmer said. “Agriculture is the backbone of Kentucky’s economy. This is important to everyone in the Commonwealth.”
Spencer County Extension Agent Bryce Roberts has seen all crops in his area affected by the lack of rainfall.
“Certainly the weather over the last several months has hindered crop production here,” he said. “Most of the tobacco fields are showing the effects from lack of rain, including black shank, and you can tell that the leaves aren’t filling out as they should be. There have been a few producers irrigating, but that is only a temporary fix. Many were irrigating late in the growth stages of the tobacco to help the crop in the latter part of production.
“Corn and soybean production will certainly be down also. Many cattle producers are also feeding hay that was to be used in the winter so good hay may be scarce later on in the year.”
Even farmers who have diversified over the years to ease the hardships of a changing tobacco market are finding that this year’s weather has shown no mercy regardless of the crop.
“If we get one-third the corn crop we normally get, it will surprise me,” said Spencer County farmer Scott Travis.
“We raise about 620 acres and only about 200 acres of that got enough rain to produce a decent yield.”
Travis also grows soybeans, wheat and tobacco and sees this year as a make or break situation for the burley crop.
“If the tobacco crop bombs this year that may be it for me,” he said.
“I’ve planted in the best ground I have. This year was my best chance to make my pounds and it has been a challenge. I’ve irrigated some, but you can’t irrigate it all.”
Travis said he’s working to persevere despite new competition from non-traditional tobacco states.
“The one thing that will carry me through this year is the buyout money,” said Travis. “We will be able to survive to plant another year but had I not been a tobacco grower I don’t know what I would have done.”
Published in the August 24, 2005 issue of Farm World.