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Growers work at producing clean tobacco with fewer chemical residues
by Rocky Womack
Since the introduction of contracting and the reduction of prices after the tobacco quota buyout, growers have found themselves competing more with farmers in the global marketplace. Buying companies have asked U.S. growers to meet the purchasing demands of foreign customers. One grower considers the adjustment as meeting expectations.
“I’m doing whatever the companies ask me to do,” says Sam Crews, a tobacco grower in Oxford, North Carolina.
In 2006, Crews, along with a delegation of other farmers from the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, flew to Europe to find out what overseas buyers wanted and listened to their concerns. He says they told the delegation of farmers to harvest ripe tobacco free of any foreign matter or non-tobacco-related materials, “which I think we’ve done as growers in the last three or four years.”
Crews returned home to re-stress to his farm workers what they told him. “We’re adamant about keeping our tobacco clean and keeping our tobacco ripe,” he says. “We may have backed up on our fertilizer rates to make sure we do produce mellow, ripe tobacco, but nothing major.”
Foreign buyers also expressed concern over the amount of maleic hydrazide (MH) residues in tobacco.
Crews says North Carolina growers have reduced MH levels, and he believes tobacco farmers in other states have reduced theirs. In the past, Georgia tobacco has been known for its higher MH residue levels. During county meetings the past few years, Georgia Extension agents have emphasized reducing MH levels to compete globally while obtaining maximum sucker control. Growers have responded to lower the residues, says J. Michael Moore, Extension tobacco specialist with the University of Georgia.
To help reduce MH residues, Moore suggests following the tips outlined in the 2007 Georgia Tobacco Grower’s Guide:
• Avoid over-fertilizing.
• Use multiple contact applications to reduce MH dependence.
• Use labeled application rates of MH.
• Apply MH to the upper side of the upper one-third of the plant leaves.
• Apply MH in a single application.
• Reapply MH at only one-half the rate if wash-off occurs from rains.
• Apply MH when tobacco is turgid, not in a drought condition.
• Wait seven days or until after rainfall or irrigation occurs between MH application and harvest. Irrigate with one-fourth to one-third inch prior to harvest if rainfall does not occur within seven days.
• Incorporate contact-localized systemics into sucker control programs.
Revisiting stalk position
When harvesting, Crews separates by stalk positions. “We do that more than we’ve done in the last 10 years,” he says.
Under contracting, tobacco companies emphasized harvesting by stalk position. Crews says they especially wanted tips separated from the leaf grade.
“If they will pay for it, obviously we are glad to do it,” says Crews, who contracts with the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. in Raleigh, N.C., and United Tobacco in Wilson, N.C.
Flue-cured grower Andy Shepherd of the Dundas, Va., area says for many years his crew wouldn’t pull primings because some companies didn’t want to buy them. His perspective changed once the Chinese entered the picture.
“The Chinese and a couple of other countries—if you’ve got good primings, certainly the kind of flashy cutters that we tried not to raise for many years — they really want that style of tobacco,” Shepherd says.
To produce those flashy cutters, Shepherd reviewed his variety selection and incorporated varieties aside from K-326.
Shepherd likes K-326 for its high yield and “holdability” in the field, but it produced thicker tobacco than the Chinese wanted. “K-326 is a little harder to produce the thinner tobacco they like, so we started [planting] NC 72 and NC 297 to produce a little flasher, not as heavy tobacco,” he says.
Marketing the bright-colored or lemon tobacco that the Chinese want requires Shepherd and his crew to pull on the “coming side” before tobacco ripens too much. He says meeting the demands of all customers will give U.S. growers an edge.
“It works out well though when you think about it,” Shepherd says. “Our old traditional customers—the Japanese, Germans and some of those folks—we can service their needs. And if we adopt varieties and cultural practices, we can still get the down-stalk that will suit the Chinese.”
Shepherd’s K-326 outperformed his other varieties last year, but he says, “In order to please the customer, you may have to give a little yield. If you can drive the price of my cutters up to $1.40 or $1.50, that’s probably well worth it.”
The export/import outlook
In 2006, flue-cured exports on a farm sales weight (fsw) basis totaled just under 284 million pounds valued at more than $567.1 million, nearly a 41 percent increase in volume and more than a 36.2 percent increase in value compared with 2005, says Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates Inc. Burley exports in 2006 totaled more than 220 million pounds fsw, valued at more than $404.6 million, nearly a 3.4 percent increase in volume but down 0.03 percent in value compared with 2005.
Wayne says Germany purchased more U.S. leaf last year at more than 124 million pounds fsw, valued at more than $222.2 million, an increase of 54.3 percent in volume over 2005. Other leading purchasers of U.S. leaf in descending order were Switzerland, the Netherlands and China.
In 2006, general imports of flue-cured tobacco totaled more than 183 million pounds fsw valued at more than $201 million, nearly an 18 percent increase in volume compared with 2005, Wayne says. Brazil was the largest supplier of flue-cured in 2005 and 2006. The country shipped a total of just under 229 million pounds fsw during the two-year period, representing 68 percent of total imports.
General imports of burley in 2006 totaled more than 187 million pounds fsw valued at more than $183 million, more than a 25 percent decline in volume compared with 2005, he says. Brazil and Malawi shared almost equally in supplying 64 percent of burley imports in 2005 and 2006. During the two-year period, Brazil shipped more than 139 million pounds fsw, and Malawi shipped more than 142 million pounds fsw.
Wayne says U.S. tobacco growers can compete with foreign growers in three distinct and important advantages—quality, large U.S. production region and stable U.S. government and currency. He says no other tobacco in the world can provide the same taste delivery in the final manufactured product. The vast production area in the United States for flue-cured and burley also provides manufacturers with ample supply in case bad weather or disease breaks out in a particular region.
Wayne says that U.S. growers suffer from a single disadvantage when trying to compete with foreign growers—price. Higher production costs have squeezed profits from growers when their U.S. prices have dropped significantly.
“No U.S. grower will ever be able to compete head-on in terms of price with foreign tobacco producers,” Wayne says. “All manufacturers recognize the three advantages of U.S.-produced tobacco; however, because of perceived cost concerns, many independent manufacturers have had little or no exposure to U.S. tobacco. They do not technically understand the quality attributes of U.S. tobacco, nor how to efficiently use U.S. leaf to improve their products. Without understanding how the use of U.S. leaf can increase sales and profits, no manufacturer is going to seek out the most expensive raw material for their products.
“Education, training and technical product-development assistance for independent manufacturers is a must for U.S. tobacco producers if expanded use of U.S. leaf is to be achieved,” Wayne adds. “The three advantages U.S. growers have is an important foundation. However, alone they provide no forward movement in increasing export demand or sales.”