As marketing began in the United States, flue-cured growers were optimistic that they had produced more of the style of leaf that their best foreign customer, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), prefers.
That Chinese buyers like flue-cured leaf with a lemon color is well established. But until this season, the Americans’ success in producing it has been mixed.
That’s because growing lemon leaf is not exactly a science. Agronomists say nitrogen application must be reduced and harvest moved earlier. But even then, it is a hit or miss process, and growers get little help from variety choice. For many years an orange color has been the goal in breeding, and most varieties currently in use don’t easily produce lemon leaf.
There was a bigger problem in 2007: lemon color is very difficult to produce in a dry year, and 2007 featured a record-setting drought.
There has been more rain this season, and even though the flue-cured belt has experienced periods of drought, there is reason for some optimism about the quantity of this style that will be produced.
Most Chinese purchases of US flue-cured come from the midstalk, one buyer said. “They will buy lugs and cutters, the grades that tend to cure this color more often. They buy some tips, but usually just the thinner ones.”
Another US buyer with considerable experience in the China market pointed out that the Chinese demand for light leaf was based on appearance more than flavor.
“They like a lemon color leaf because they want the tobacco in their cigarettes to show it,” he said. “They want to see light-colored flecks. There is an association of bright color with quality which may carry over from the old English style cigarettes that were smoked there for so long.”
It has been suggested that American growers might better present the lemon leaf they have if they would more diligently separate a cutter grade from their leaf. Cutters have been in very low demand for a long time, and many if not most farmers have gotten in the habit of including their cutter leaves in their leaf grades and not marketing a cutter grade at all.
Perhaps for not quite the same reasons, Chinese purchases of US burley have come from a similar part of the stalk. “The Chinese tend to buy burley from the middle of the stalk, and they don’t care much for the tips or the lower stalk,” said Brian Furnish, General Manager of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association in Lexington, KY.
“We have had a lot of interest from China, and from the Philippines and Indonesia as well,” said Furnish. “They buy a little US burley from dealers here but most of it comes from the cooperatives.”
Charles Finch, General Manager of the Burley Stabilization Corp. in Knoxville, TN, said he had observed a lot of interest in this crop on the part of the PRC. The states he represents - Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia - seemed to have had better luck with the weather this season, so he was optimistic that there would be plenty of good leaf for the Chinese and other foreign customers.
Flue-cured production in China in 2008 has been estimated at 2.07 bn kg, about 6% more than the 1.95 bn kg produced in 2007 and roughly the same as in 2005 and 2006, according to Universal Leaf.
Burley production is projected at 28 mn kg, about 12% more than in 2007. This would be the first year since 2004 that burley volume in China has increased. In 2004, 45 mn kg were produced. - (Bickers)