Knoxville - An unseasonable spring freeze that set over much of the tobacco belt on April 8 (Easter morning), caused considerable damage to plants in parts of the flue-cured states Georgia and South Carolina.
But tobacco specialists in the two major burley states of Tennessee and Kentucky said that because virtually all the crop was still in the greenhouse when the freeze struck, there was little plant injury.
"Unheated greenhouses and outdoor floatbeds had some damage in the cold weather, but we lost surprisingly few plants," said Paul Denton, Tennessee Extension tobacco agronomist.
In Kentucky, most plants were in greenhouses which had supplemental heat at the time of the freeze. The weather had been unseasonably warm in March, then the Easter freeze.
"We had some salt damage to plants from the early heat," said Bob Pearce, Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist. "There may be a bit of a shortfall of transplants. But as people begin to finish up in late May, I think we will see a few more transplants become available."
It could have been much worse. "Actually, we were fortunate," said Pearce. "Tobacco fared pretty well compared to other Kentucky commodities. It wasn't a 'wipe out for us,' and it was for many of the others."
In Tennessee, which lies farthest south of any of the significant burley-producing states, a little of the burley crop had been planted west of Nashville by the end of April. But transplanting didn't get under way in earnest in the rest of the state until May 1.
Some Kentucky burley had been set out around May 1, said Pearce. He expected about 10% of the crop to be in the field by the end of the first full week of May.
Pearce noted one problem in early May. "We are seeing plants with chill injury," he said. "We are ready to transplant, and some of the plants have ground suckers already."
This makes for a difficult start for the plant, he said. "If it goes under any more stress in the field, it can get full-fledged ground suckers that can be a problem after topping."
There is a tactic for dealing with this situation. Pearce recommends that a farmer set his plants as deep in the soil as possible. "That can suppress ground suckers if you cover them up. Push as much dirt around the base of the plant as you can."
Pearce expects a slight increase in burley plantings in Kentucky this season.
"Last year, we had 72,000 to 73,000 acres," he said. "This season, the US Department of Agriculture projects 77,000 acres, a 5% increase."
After the shuffle, who's growing burley?
Farmers who grew burley last year don't appear to be accounting for most of the increase, said Pearce. Instead, it is coming from growers who elected not to grow tobacco in the first two years after the buyout but are now getting back into the crop.
Plantings of burley in Kentucky will take place in roughly the same areas as in 2006 after considerable movement the two previous seasons.
"There has been a westward shift of burley plantings," said Pearce. "But that movement seems to have stabilized for now."
Eastern Tennessee, a mountainous area famous for its small-scale, high-quality growers, continues to decline in burley production, as do the neighboring areas of North Carolina and Virginia, but there has been some increase in middle Tennessee just east of Nashville, said Denton. This is a traditional burley area.
But in the areas north and west of Nashville [extending into western Kentucky] where dark tobacco types have been the dominant types, there has been little enthusiasm for increased burley production, although increases had generally been predicted. This probably reflects the fact that since deregulation, prices for the dark types have competed well with burley.
The big post-buyout shifts in location of burley in Tennessee are over, said Denton. The areas that are growing it now will probably continue growing it as long as prices are attractive.
Burley growers like barns in Tennessee
In other developments among burley growers:
-The clothesline-like outdoor curing structures that characterized Tennessee burley production are beginning to fade away.
"We have moved away from field-curing structures in the last few years," Denton said. Farmers prefer conventional barns, and "because of the reduced acreage we plant now, we have enough barns to cure the crop," he said.
Nevertheless, a few new conventional barns being built in middle Tennessee where burley plantings are increasing, he said. Often they have multiple tiers rather than the single tier approach of the outdoor structures.
In Kentucky, too, some new curing facilities are being built in the growth area of western Kentucky, said Pearce. In contrast to Tennessee, outdoor curing structures are still seem popular in this state, which is where the concept was developed in the mid-'90s.
-The hot news in American burley now may be in the area of varieties.
"Tennessee 90 has been the number one variety in this state for many years, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is displaced this year by [the new variety] Kentucky-Tennessee (KT) 204," he said. "We could see 40% to 50% of our acreage in KT 204 in 2007."
Next year, a sister variety to KT 204 called KT 206 will become commercially available, and Denton says it may be even more with farmers. - (Bickers).