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Drought and labor issues slow Kentucky tobacco productivity
Kentucky Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Unlike many other crops, tobacco has a second season. The first is in the growing of the plant and the second is in the curing – both crucial to the success of a year’s work.

Most growers are in that second season and so far, the crop is in good shape for the most part. But the 2012 crop has not been without bumps in the road. The rains of July came at just the right time for most producers, but much of the crop remained in the field too long because of a shortage of labor.

Couple that with early frosts, and some tobacco suffered damage. Dr. Bob Pearce, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture burley tobacco specialist, said right now the crop looks fine but a good curing season is needed.

“The drought affected some of the earliest tobacco, but a lot of the tobacco after that has done really well, yield-wise,” he said. “The first two-thirds to three-fourths of the crop, I think, are going to have good quality, too.”

Pearce added for the tobacco harvested in the last two weeks, the curing conditions have been a bit cool. “I have some concerns of ultimately what the quality will be on that,” he said. “There’s still some hope we’ll have enough warm weather through the first of November that some of that tobacco will still have good quality.”

After dipping into the 50s the weekend before last, temperatures recovered to the upper 70s, just what producers needed as the curing season progresses. Pearce pointed out the weight of the crop won’t matter if the quality isn’t good. Most producers remember the curing season of two years ago that left discolored tobacco hanging in their barns and tobacco companies rejecting the crop at receiving stations.

But early indicators don’t point to a repeat of that. The most current numbers from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) upped the yield forecast from last month and shows a marked increase in poundage over 2011.

“Burley production by Kentucky farmers was forecast at 148 million pounds, up 5 percent from the September forecast and 16 percent from last year. Yield per acre was estimated at 2,000 pounds, up 100 pounds from September and unchanged from 2011. Harvested acreage was estimated at 74,000 acres, unchanged from the previous forecast but up 10,000 acres from the previous year,” the report noted.

The NASS release also stated in all burley-producing states, an estimated 202 million pounds is expected, an increase of 9 percent over last month’s forecast. Todd Clark, a producer from Fayette County, said his 45 acres have been in the barn for nearly a month.
For him and most other producers, it has been a touch-and-go kind of season.

“In the middle of the summer, the discussion among farmers was whether or not the crop would be worth putting in the barn,” he said. “Then, we seemed to get rain at the right time and the crop went from debatable to a pretty decent crop and, in some cases, exceptional.”

There was some tobacco planted late that needed rain later in the year and did not get it, especially in the Bluegrass region. Besides the drought, the other big issue for tobacco farmers was labor, or rather the lack of it, preventing growers from getting their crop into the barn at the appropriate time, said Clark. Some of that tobacco has endured frost three separate times, another factor that will likely affect quality.

“It will be interesting in January or February, when that tobacco starts to make it to the markets, to see what the response will be,” he said.

But once the crop is ready for market, Clark said there are a few new venues out there, which is good for producers. He just hopes this new upswing in the burley sector can remain sustainable.
“There seems to be a few new players in the marketplace and things seem to be on an uptick. I hope that whatever is causing this can be maintained and it’s not a one- or two-year thing and then we’re back in the other direction,” he said.

Clark pointed out tobacco still remains the most profitable of traditional row crops, but corn is getting close – and with few, if any, labor issues.

This year because of the drought, tobacco is likely to be the better money crop for those with diversified operations but if corn prices remain strong and labor issues persist for tobacco farmers, it won’t be surprising to see more tobacco ground turning to corn.
Clark thinks the single biggest factor in determining how much tobacco will be produced in 2013 with be having enough help.