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Rainfall a big problem for tobacco growers
but just ‘tip of iceberg’ of what they could face

Tobacco planting is behind schedule due to excess rains in the region. This patch in Scott County is one of the few where plants have made it into the ground. (Photo by Tim Thornberry)


By Tim Thornberry
KyForward correspondent

Much like their corn-growing counterparts, tobacco growers in Kentucky are beginning to get a little nervous about the continued rainfall and inability to get their crop planted.

According to information from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, only 12 percent of the burley tobacco crop had been planted as of the May 20 report. Last year at this time, 35 percent of the crop had made its way to the field, with the five-year average being 20 percent.

While growers have time to plant before yield losses are a concern, keeping plants that have been ready to go for a few weeks in good condition may become a bigger challenge.

The Mitchell family in Woodford County has managed to get plants in the gorund but are already 'way behind.' (Photo from Donald Mitchell)

Kenny Seebold, an extension plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said farmers are definitely off to a slow start but it is probably too early to worry about yield losses.

“Right now, with the moisture we’ve got, if it will dry out, it’s not a bad thing to have decent soil moisture to get you in but you’d like for it dry off. If we get pretty regular rain especially for the first six weeks after the crop is set, that might sort of bake in some yield loss but it’s too early to tell right now,” Seebold said.

Plant beds may be of more concern, currently. Seebold said it’s time for these plants to get out in the field.

“We’re holding plants and holding plants and that sometimes can be a recipe for problems and I’m starting to get a few calls about pythium root rot,” he said. “It’s not the worst I’ve seen but it’s picking up and I’m sure getting these things in the ground will be a remedy for some of that.”

Seebold added that with the rainfall the state has seen, if the temperatures go up once the crop is set, blank shank will be the disease to look for. With that said, Seebold noted that farmers have become aware of just what that disease can do to a crop and the bulk of what they are putting out is blank shank-resistant.

For tobacco farmers, getting the crop out and without disease problems could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues they will face.

An increase in poundage has been the forecast from the USDA since winter. Just how much of an increase depends on several factors, including the presence of an ample labor force to bring in the crop.

If there is an increase in production, Brian Furnish, a tobacco farmer and president of the International Tobacco Trading Group said that increase may not be a large one due to many factors affecting farmers, especially those older producers with smaller operations.

“The older farmer doesn’t raise a lot of acreage and he’s having a hard time getting help. He’s not really set up to get the H2A [temporary agricultural] workers in,” he said. “I’ve always said it’s the little farmers who do the best job and have better quality for the most part.”

Another obstacle for producers or would-be producers is the lack of an adequate infrastructure. Furnish said those wanting to get in or expand are having a hard time finding land and barn space to rent.

But the lack of an adequate labor force will likely be the determining factor as to how much tobacco a farmer will raise.

“It all comes down to how much labor you can get to get it in the barn because, I don’t care if you raise five acres or 20 acres, you have to have five or six people willing to help you get that tobacco in the barn,” Furnish said. “You just can’t do it yourself. Tobacco is a crop where you have to have seasonal labor.”

Immigrant laborers that used to come here for the tobacco season just aren’t doing it anymore either because of better paying work elsewhere in the country or fewer of them wanting to work in agriculture, noted Furnish.

A crop insurance rule that went into effect with the 2013 crop is another factor when it comes to raising tobacco or not. That rule states that farmers can not insure a tobacco crop grown on the same acreage where tobacco has been grown in the previous two years.

Furnish said that rule is unfair to farmers who have consistently raised tobacco on the same acreage for a number of years without any insurance claims.

“If you’re raising good tobacco and you don’t have diseases and claims on your insurance, you shouldn’t be penalized by a rule that is trying to prevent fraud,” he said.

Furnish also said he agrees with utilizing good rotational practices when needed but if there have been no claims or problems with a crop, this new rule, which came into effect this growing year could hurt good farmers.

With many hurdles to jump, tobacco growers have tough decisions to make as far as how much tobacco to raise or if they should plant a crop at all.

But the fact still remains; the market is short on quality burley tobacco leaving opportunity for Kentucky growers. Many of those, however have made changes in their operations and gone from growing primarily one crop to a variety of things including grain crops and livestock.

Todd Clark, a grower from Fayette County said while there are areas around the state that will likely see tobacco production increases, some areas will likely remain at current production levels.

“People have diversified and they are just at a point where they are not interested in the expansion of tobacco,” he said.

Clark who still raises around 50 acres of tobacco has also diversified his operation and doesn’t plan to increase his acreage for the coming season. He said producers got a bit of a boost for their bottom line last year due to higher prices from tobacco companies and those prices could stay around for another year. But for the most part, growers are not optimistic that those prices will stay around for the long haul.

Furnish said he just doesn’t see big increases in production this year as has been forecast, despite higher prices and a market demand.  

But, now could be a good time for farmers to come back to tobacco, if they ‘can just find the help.’

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered Kentucky agricultural and rural issues for various publications since 1995. 

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