By Tim Thornberry
As Kentucky’s tobacco-growing season comes to an end, the consensus seems to be it hasn’t been an easy one.
For one thing, tobacco is more of a dry, warm-weather crop, and this summer has been anything but dry and warm. And many farmers who were able to plant their fields on time lost those fields due to the sudden downpours that became a common occurrence in many areas of the state. Those who got a late start will likely have issues of their own if an early frost heads this way.
Todd Clark farms in Fayette County and grows about 50 acres of tobacco. He said his crop is “decent,” but much of it was planted late.
“It had too much moisture, but where it is a resilient crop, it seems like it’s overcoming some of the setbacks,” he said. “Most of my ground is higher ground so I had a little drowned out but very little. I think my personal stand loss is about 10 percent or slightly more than that.”
Other producers across the state may not be as lucky. Clark, who also serves on the Council for Burley Tobacco, said average losses of 25 percent are being discussed. What is out there may have a weight issue, something that would hurt come market time because wet-weather tobacco doesn’t weigh as much as a dry-weather crop.
However, Clark said he thinks the hot dry period just experienced in much of the state helped with the weight issue for tobacco that is still in the field.
For those whose tobacco has already been sent to the barn, the curing season is under way, which could set the stage for an interesting market. Supplies are almost nonexistent for tobacco companies, so this crop is expected to bring good prices as long as the quality is OK. Last year, prices finally reached pre-quota buyout levels and even higher prices were expected this year.
“I think the only thing that could hurt the demand is if it turned off incredibly dry through the curing season,” Clark said. “And as unusual as this season has been, there’s been a concern, too, about an early frost. We always talk about moisture for curing, but it also takes some heat. So there was some concern up until about a week ago, if it was even going to be warm enough to cure.”
If the weather pattern of the summer continues, temperatures are forecast to be seasonal. But as most producers can attest, anything can happen.
“At the moment, everything seems fine. Even during this last couple of weeks without rainfall, at least in Central Kentucky, there’s been enough humidity and moisture in the air, to cure. I don’t know if it’s been perfect curing weather but it’s at least been decent,” said Clark. “I think we’re going to cure OK, so I think the companies will pay a decent price for the crop.”
The USDA projects an average yield of 1,900 pounds per acre for the 2013 burley tobacco crop. That would be a decrease of 150 pounds from last year, but Clark said he does not think yields will be as bad as believed earlier in the season.
“Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think the yields are going to be quite as bad as we were once thinking,” he said. “There are going to be some individuals across the state who have lost their whole crop or close to it, and there are some people that are hurting. In general, I think there will be a shortage on the crop, but I don’t think it will be as dire as we once thought.”
Bob Pearce, extension tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment said so far the early curing season has been good but for those with tobacco still in the field, there are still obstacles to overcome.
“This past weekend, some areas got a lot of rain. In fact, I’m less optimistic than I was. At one of my test plots, we had a combination of rain and wind and our later tobacco was damaged fairly severely,” he said. “From a production standpoint, it’s not a wipeout but from a research standpoint, it really limited our ability to get useful information out of those crops.”
What Pearce experienced over the Labor Day weekend is what many tobacco farmers have faced all season; too much rain. According to the Kentucky Mesonet Weather Data site, some isolated areas received more than 4 inches of rain in a five-day period.
To date, some areas of Kentucky have received more than 50 inches of precipitation in 2013; that is slightly above yearly totals for most of the state with four months left in the year.
The wet growing season has left much of the state’s tobacco with a shallow root system, which could mean wind damage in the event severe storms pop up, as happened last weekend. Pearce said with this latest round of storms, he suspects the later crops could have sustained some blow-over damage, although it is likely widespread.
“This is certainly going to be another aggravation for the growers in trying to get those crops completed and in the barn,” he said.
The latest crop information from the National Agricultural Statistic Service noted that less than half of the burley tobacco crop was cut with almost 20 percent still to be topped.
For those still looking to top their tobacco, it will likely be into October before that crop can be put in the barn.
“Ideally, we would like for a crop to stand three and a half to four weeks after topping. So, if you do the math, you’re looking at the first of October,” he said. “If you have a crop a week or two from topping, you’re looking at the middle of October in a best case scenario. The deeper we go into October, the greater the chances we’re going to have a frost.”
According to the National Weather Service, one of the earliest fall frosts came last year on Sept. 23. The earliest fall hard freeze came in 1974 on Oct. 3.
Even if it doesn’t frost, Pearce said the later a grower gets into the fall with cooler nights, the less favorable curing conditions are going to be.
For those with tobacco in the barn, Pearce said the ideal curing conditions would be moderate temperatures, 60 degrees or above on a daily average with a good cycle of high and low humidity and moisture.
“Interestingly enough, the kind of weather patterns we’ve had that got us into the mess is what it’s going to kind of take to make it better now,” he said.
Pearce added that this crop represents as wide of a variance in crop development as any he has seen.
Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered Kentucky agricultural and rural issues for various publications since 1995.