2007 - A want for water
Tobacco was the best crop in a season of sadness - the drought of 2007 leaves a lasting impression
by Rocky Womack
Dry conditions enveloped most of the country’s tobacco growing regions this summer. Rain was about as scarce as lower fuel prices. But despite the lack of rainfall, growers used their management skills to deal with disease, harvesting and curing concerns.
In North Carolina, growers harvested about two weeks to a month later than normal, says Loren Fisher, an Extension tobacco specialist with North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh.
The driest areas that are furthest behind have been in the northern Piedmont or Old Belt of North Carolina and the northern Coastal Plain. However, Fisher says severe drought has been spotty in all areas of North Carolina.
Dry conditions didn’t delay harvest in burley country. “If anything, it may have actually hastened harvest a bit as growers tried to get the crop out of the field before it fired up [from the heat],” says Bob Pearce, an Extension burley tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
The quickened harvest and dry weather has caught the tobacco in a “low-moisture situation,” says Gary Palmer, a UK Extension burley tobacco specialist. Tobacco has cured too fast because of the drought and high temperatures; “Therefore, tobacco may be a little bright if we don’t get better weather,” he says.
To battle the heat, some growers are closing barns to conserve moisture and wetting down the barn floors with water, Palmer says.
In Tennessee, dry weather initially delayed some flowering, says Paul Denton, with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., and caused tobacco in many areas to “fire up” the stalk. Growers harvested faster, usually shortly after topping.
“Many growers feel they are losing more from the firing of lower leaves than they are gaining in growth of upper-stalk leaves after topping,” he says.
In early to mid-September, Denton says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop reporting service estimated Tennessee growers had harvested 62 percent of their burley crop, “which is actually not far off our five-year average of 60 percent.”
Temperatures in triple digits for days—and about an inch of rain the whole month of August—caused tobacco to deteriorate, he says. Denton notes that few Tennessee growers irrigate their tobacco.
Late-transplanted tobacco suffered worst from the heat after June 15. Denton predicts that 10 percent of the crop will not be harvested, mostly late-transplanted acreage.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service dropped its expected burley yield in the state from 2,100 pounds per acre on Aug. 1 to 1,700 pounds per acre on Sept. 1. Denton says the reporting was most likely accurate.
In September, low humidity with hot weather concerned growers at curing time. “As a result, the tobacco has been drying rapidly with detrimental effects on color and quality,” Denton says.
To combat the low humidity, he says Tennessee growers hung their tobacco tighter in barns and on curing structures. The strategy paid off by slowing the curing process; however, Denton warns rotting could occur in the barns if the weather turned too wet.
About mid-September, Denton says temperatures cooled down, and growers benefited from much-needed rainfall, which should have improved curing conditions.
For flue-cured growers who cure with LP gas, curing has proved a challenge and costly, “but growers have done an excellent job of getting the most out of this year’s crop,” Fisher says. “Leaf quality has been good, likely better than most would expect given the growing season.”
At the flue-cured barns, Fisher says growers have increased their cure times, especially during the yellowing phase of curing. “Where it would normally take seven to eight days, in many cases it is taking nine to 10 days to properly cure this year’s crop,” he says. “That reduces turnover rates for the barns in a year when barn space is already an issue on many farms.”
To more efficiently cure in bulk barns, more growers have purchased and installed computer-aided (monitoring) curing systems. “In most cases, these systems have saved growers money by reducing the amount of fuel it takes to cure a barn of tobacco,” Fisher says.
Dry conditions will have the biggest effect on leaf and tip grades, he says, because the drought and heat have caused upper leaves to break down and deteriorate prior to ripening and harvesting, which will likely reduce quality and yield.
While grades and prices for them are preset by tobacco companies, Fisher says most tobacco as of early September 2007 had been graded similar to last year, depending on quality of the leaf trucked to the buying station. Much of the mid to upper leaves hadn’t been sold, and with the high temperatures in the fields, growers may see lower prices based on possible lower quality.
Disease took a back seat to the drought in 2007; nonetheless, a little showed up and its severity differed depending on the location. Palmer says black shank and blue mold caused few problems. He estimates black shank pressure was at 3 percent to 5 percent, and blue mold was almost immeasurable.
Likewise in Tennessee, disease was not a huge concern. “With dry weather early, the widespread use of KT 204 and more rotation with other crops, black shank pressure was the least I have seen in my five seasons as a tobacco specialist,” Denton says. “I would estimate the loss as only 2 to 4 percent.”
Early in the season, blue mold posed a problem for Tennessee growers, but it subsided with hot weather. However, Denton says blue mold re-emerged in late July when a few days of rain and cloudy weather occurred. Hot weather reappeared and stopped the disease again. He says a few fields were heavily impacted by the disease, but Denton estimates overall blue mold loss measured well under 1 percent.
North Carolina growers faced losses from black shank, says Mina Mila, an NCSU Extension tobacco specialist and assistant professor. The disease was first spotted in the east, and then in the Piedmont.
Race shift of black shank from mainly Race 0 to Race 1 has challenged flue-cured and burley growers. She says growers should keep that concern in mind when they select seeds for next season.
Tomato spotted wilt scared a few people in early spring transplanting, Mila says, but overall pressure was about at a medium level, although certain “hot spots” existed that caused severe damage.
She ranked Granville wilt pressure at a low to medium level, depending on a grower’s field history for the disease. “I visited fields with Granville wilt,” she says, “but the problem was not as severe as it could be in other seasons.”
Except for the Piedmont area of North Carolina, blue mold was not a serious problem. “In the past few years, we did not have any blue mold cases in the Piedmont or eastern part of the state; however, burley production there could change the scenario if the weather conditions are favorable and the disease shows up early,” she says.
Very little Fusarium wilt was present this year, but some fields suffered from this disease where sweet potatoes or cotton were planted prior to transplanting tobacco. Mila says growers can manage Fusarium wilt better if they control nematodes.
“I understand that cutting the cost margin is important,” she says, “but in some cases this may cost more than help.”
In the greenhouse during 2007 in North Carolina, Pythium and soft rot were two recognizable concerns.
Low insect pressures
Insect problems were light, with the usual hornworm and budworm infestations, Palmer says.
Denton says some late outbreaks of hornworms caught growers by surprise and caused significant damage in a few fields before they could treat. Overall, he estimates the insect loss in the 1 to 3 percent range.
Mila says insect pressure was low this year due to the dry weather.