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Rain, too little labor hurst Kentucky tobacco harvest
Kentucky Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — This year was to have the best burley crop in the state in more than a decade - and by some estimates ever. Then, September brought record-breaking rains and, adding insult to injury, the worry of too little labor became a reality and some of that pristine crop suffered as it sat in the mud.

Tobacco is going through its second post-buyout season, and growing pains are still surfacing. Last year’s main concern was market price; this year it has been the struggle to get the crop harvested.

Pre-season price incentives by major tobacco companies kept some producers in the game for another year, but labor issues could be the deciding factor for the number of producers sticking it out for the 2007 season.

Despite these difficulties, University of Kentucky Ag Economist Will Snell said all is not lost even though uncertainties remain.

“This year’s crop, entering the harvest season, was one of our best but the onslaught of rain and labor problems have hurt both the quantity and quality. The major question becomes, in a situation of tight supplies, how will the companies respond to the potential of quality damaged tobacco; i.e. houseburn and muddy from excessive moisture,” said Snell.

“Right now, with the labor challenges, many growers are hesitant about continuing to grow tobacco. If we have a depressing market situation, many will exit. But with the color of the crop, tight supplies, a decent amount of very good quality tobacco and higher contract prices, I expect to see higher prices for the 2006 crop. If that does not materialize, planting intentions for the 2007 crop could decline significantly without further price incentives.

“That’s both good and bad from an economist’s standpoint. Higher prices will induce more supply for the domestic market, but perhaps reduce some of the export growth momentum that we have experienced in recent years. But as I have said before, we can’t export it, if we don’t have the production.”

The labor problems Snell mentioned created as much of a mess as the rain did. Anderson County Extension Agent Tommy Yankey said this growing season was the toughest he has ever experienced.

“This was the most challenging year I’ve seen in my career,” he said. “From a labor standpoint, I worked with outstanding growers and their crops were in the field too long after topping and spraying and they just couldn’t help it.”

Migrant workers have become the main source of labor for burley production in the state, but new immigration laws and a crackdown on illegal immigrants has created a labor shortfall - which became evident this season. Growers will have to hold their breath until markets open and buyers come to town.

“It’s too early to tell how this tobacco will do in the market, but I think there will be quite a bit of green tobacco,” said Yankey. “This was the best crop in field since 1994, and if you got your crop up without getting wet, you were blessed. But there will be a lot of muddy tobacco. The tobacco companies have been preaching they wanted mature tobacco; well they’re certainly going to have it this year.”

Yankey said the number of producers is likely to decline again next year unless the labor issue changes and new production techniques are developed at a reasonable price.

“Next year, I think we will have 20 percent fewer growers and for those staying in, many told me that unless something changes, they will cut back,” said Yankey.

“Farmers here are going to have to look at mechanization but it’s expensive and who has that kind of money? If you’re raising 100 acres, you’re looking at a million dollar investment and if I had a million dollars I wouldn’t be raising a crop. It’s hard to invest when the tobacco outlook is so uncertain.”

While mechanization has been the answer to other crops including other types of tobacco, burley tobacco has long been a hand-labor intense product.

The same harvesting method used today has been used for generations. Producers cut the entire stalk, which is split or speared and left to wilt on sticks in the field for a day or two before it is brought to a curing barn to hang until it is cured and ready to be stripped off the stalk, bundled into grades and taken to a market or buyer.

The harvesting machines that are currently available are either too expensive or not dependable enough for most farmers to invest in but technology will eventually create the labor producers are missing today.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture hosted a Burley Mechanization Field Day last September to demonstrate four commercial and prototype burley harvesting machines including one developed by the school’s Department of Bio-systems and Agricultural Engineering.

While many have chosen to leave the burley business, continued high demand in this country and abroad will keep many looking for new ways to combat the labor issue and dodge the perils of Mother Nature.