in the Carolinas and Virginia was way behind schedule in maturity in September, raising fears that a tropical storm or an early frost might seriously damage what appeared to be an excellent harvest.
If no such weather problems arose, however, a large, good quality flue-cured crop seemed a certainty. The prospects for dark fire-cured and dark air-cured production were also getting better.
But estimates of US burley production continued to decline, and it seemed clear that the world burley shortage will get no relief from American growers this year.
A modest increase in production for flue-cured
In its September 12 Crop Production Report, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted that flue-cured volume in the states would reach 520 mn pounds, 3% more than it had projected just 30 days earlier and also 3% more than the total in 2007. Plantings were calculated at 226,500 acres, up 3% from both the August 1 forecast and a year ago, with yields forecast to average 2,295 pounds per acre, 27 pounds above the last forecast and up 36 pounds from 2007.
Among the individual states, the yield prospects in North Carolina, the number one flue-cured state, are expected to average 2,300 pounds per acre, up 50 pounds from August, while yields in Virginia should remain unchanged from the previous forecast. Yields in South Carolina and Georgia decreased from last month by 50 pounds and 100 pounds respectively, thanks mainly to excessive rains associated with Tropical Storm Fay that interfered with harvest.
But of the four named storms that threatened the Southeast (Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike) from mid-August to mid-September, Fay was the only one that actually caused significant damage, so most growers will have considered that they dodged the bullet (four bullets actually). Fay actually had the beneficial effect of breaking the drought in parts of the flue-cured belt.
There was no time to let down the guard, however, as storm season still had several weeks to go. And a disturbing amount of the crop remained unharvested because the long dry spell had slowed crop maturity.
“Probably 40% or better of the crop is still in the field,” said Loren Fisher, North Carolina state tobacco agronomist on September 12. “That is much more than we would normally expect. The crop was very late in developing, but now it is ripening very fast, faster than farmers can harvest it. This is the side effect of the recent rain.”
He noted that farmers in the lower eastern part of the state, in particular in Sampson County and the surrounding area, are having trouble getting their flue-cured harvested in a timely manner.
“There hasn’t been any widespread loss yet because of delayed harvest, but if flue-cured isn’t harvested in a timely manner, it starts to deteriorate,” said Fisher.
Any further delay from tropical storms would only worsen the situation.
In the Piedmont of North Carolina (NC) and Virginia - what used to be called the Old Belt - the flue-cured crop was farther behind because conditions had been drier. But this area did not get as much rain from Fay, and harvest was proceeding in a more orderly manner. Nonetheless, there was a clear danger if the area experienced an early frost - a not infrequent occurrence - the loss might be considerable.
The limiting factor for all flue-cured growers in this country is barn space, and growers were reportedly searching high and low for barns lying unused that could be pressed into service.
Yields fall for burley
USDA said that burley production prospects continued to decline through September. Volume in all burley states was expected to total 197 mn pounds, down 2% from the August forecast and 5% below 2007, on plantings of 95,950 acres, 10% less than 2007. Yields are expected to average 2,050 pounds per acre, 21 pounds below last month but 99 pounds above a year ago. Yields decreased in August in Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia as temperatures remained high with scattered precipitation. In Pennsylvania, hail reduced burley yields.
Like their flue-cured growing cousins, burley growers still had much to fear from the weather. In Kentucky, the state tobacco agronomist said on September 12 that 35% to 45% of the state’s burley was still in the field, mainly because it was planted so late.
“That is more than normal for this time of the year,” said Bob Pearce of the University of Kentucky staff. “Between 15% to 20% would be closer to what we would expect.
“The tobacco that is in the barn is curing a little faster than we would like. We could use a little more humidity to help the cure.”
The state average yield appears to be a bit below average as late-planted crops are suffering in a lot of areas because of drought.
The drought set in around the first of July in central Kentucky, and a little later in the rest of the state, Pearce said. Tropical storms had not reached far enough north to provide much relief in this state, although there was some hope of showers connected with Ike.
There was a danger of early frost, as in the flue-cured area. A bigger problem might be that burley harvested from late September on is frequently subject to temperatures below the optimal level.
“If temperatures in the first two weeks in the barn fall below 50 degrees (Fahrenheit), we expect some green color in the leaf because cold temperatures set a green color,” said Pearce. “There is definitely a quality concern. We tell farmers to close the barn up tight and stall for better weather.”
Minor types: Some up, some down
Fire-cured tobacco production is expected to total 61.5 mn pounds, up 9% from last month’s forecast and 48% above 2007, on 18,400 acres, 9% above the August 1 forecast and 26% more than a year ago. The yield is expected to average 3,342 pounds per acre, five pounds above last month and 487 pounds more than last year.
Dark air-cured production is expected to total 24.4 mn pounds, up 15% from last month and 81% above 2007, with plantings of 8,300 acres, 67% above last year. Yields are expected to average 2,942 pounds per acre, down 8 pounds from the previous forecast but 236 pounds above a year ago.
Many growers in Kentucky and Tennessee have shifted their acreage from burley to the dark tobacco types in expectation of higher prices.
Cigar type production is expected to total 9.07 mn pounds, down 15% from last month’s forecast and 20% below last year, on plantings of 5,090 acres, 15% below 2007. An average yield of 1,781 pounds per acre, down 35 pounds from August 1 and 92 pounds below a year ago, is projected.
Southern Maryland production in Pennsylvania - the only significant producer of this type - is expected to total 3.42 mn pounds, down 22% from the August forecast but still 48% above 2007. A total of 1,800 acres is expected to be harvested, 10% below what was expected last month but up 64% from a year ago. Yields are expected to average 1,900 pounds per acre, 300 pounds less than the previous forecast and 200 pounds less than last year.