Maxiumizing seed dollars
Some trends emerge, while seed needs remain about the same
by Rocky Womack
Tobacco changes have affected the seed industry and trends have emerged, while others remain the same. Ben Eggett, seed production manager with F.W. Rickard Seeds in Winchester, Ky., says the seed market “mirrors” tobacco acreage. For the past several years, acreage has remained stable, but he foresees acreage becoming static in the future.
“It seems with the profit margin of a tobacco crop today, farmers who are raising tobacco are approaching their total capacity of production,” Eggett says. “One trend that has affected the seed market is that individual farmers are growing more acres, thus the farmer is growing or purchasing larger amounts of transplants. We have noticed this trend in our packaging department, with decreased sales of seed packages for small acreage and increased sales of the packages for larger acreage.”
Marion Hawkins Jr., president of GoldLeaf Seed Company in Hartsville, S.C., says that “as growers raise more acreage, the tendency is to plant more than one variety to take advantage of different disease resistances and spread the harvest pressure to better utilize their curing barns.”
The majority of Rickard Seeds’ burley and dark tobacco varieties are now low-conversion (LC) certified, meaning the University of Kentucky has screened the parental lines to eliminate converter plants.
“This process results in a lowering of nornicotine for low conversions for nitrosamines,” Eggett says.
Trends in the seed market haven’t changed much since the tobacco quota buyout a few years ago, says Sam Baker, vice president of Cross Creek Seeds in Raeford, N.C.
“Farmers want to maximize their profit by any means necessary,” he says. “They want to buy a seed that will give them the highest germination and most usable transplants possible.”
In the 2007 growing season, Baker says Cross Creek offered four out of the top six yielding and dollar-producing varieties of CC 27, NC 299, Cross Creek K 326 and NC 291. He adds that CC 27 and NC 299 were the top two yielding varieties in the flue-cured market.
Next season, Cross Creek will join with Speight Seed Farm to offer the largest diversity of disease-resistant varieties, and Baker predicts Cross Creek will become the largest supplier of flue-cured tobacco seed in the United States.
In late 2007 or early 2008, Cross Creek will release CC 37, which is resistant to Race 0 black shank, tobacco mosaic virus, root-knot, cyst nematodes, and m. javanica. CC 37 has more Granville wilt resistance than CC 27 and may yield higher and grow off faster.
Rickard Seeds plans to sell two new burley hybrids and two new dark hybrids in 2008. The burley hybrid, HB 3307LC, offers good resistance to Race 0 and Race 1 black shank and has resistance to tobacco mosaic virus. It has excellent quality and yields high.
The company also will offer a new burley hybrid from the University of Kentucky. KT 206LC, a high-yielding variety, offers high resistance to Race 0 and Race 1 black shank and medium resistance to blue mold.
The new dark hybrids, PD 7302 LC and PD 7309LC, have resistance to black shank Race 0 only. PD 7302 LC offers resistance to tobacco mosaic virus and has excellent quality and curability similar to KY 171. PD 7309LC’s quality and curability is similar to NL Madole.
Hawkins says GoldLeaf Seed in 2008 will have a good supply of three newer varieties that were limited in 2007—NC 196, NC 471 and PVH 1118. Along with those varieties, he says the company will market NC 71, the popular flue-cured variety grown for four or five years.
Hawkins says growers choose coated seeds that will give them the earliest germination and most uniform emergence.
When purchasing seed, Eggett says growers look at disease resistance, yield and quality, as well as quick, high and uniform germination that will give them the highest number of useable transplants. In developing flue-cured varieties, Rickard Seeds focuses mainly on establishing resistance to bacterial wilt, black shank and nematodes. With burley varieties the focus is on black shank, blue mold and Fusarium wilt. For dark tobacco, it is black shank and tobacco mosaic virus.
Cross Creek focuses on maintaining high yield and quality while adding black shank (Race 0 and Race 1), Granville wilt, nematode and tobacco mosaic virus resistances.
Finding varieties that offer Race 1 as good as Race 0 resistance has been difficult, Hawkins says, but his staff is looking back at older breeding lines to find a clue that will offer greater Race 1 resistance.
Growers looking for a quick disease fix from genetically modified tobacco (GMO) varieties probably will be disappointed.
“Genetically modified tobacco is not expected to be utilized by the tobacco industry in the United States anytime soon,” Eggett says, “but may be eventually accepted over a longer time frame. What will probably allow GMO tobacco to be accepted is if it can be modified such that tobacco is less of a health risk to the consumer.”
Baker also doesn’t envision GMO tobacco taking off anytime soon. “There are still too many obstacles to climb at this point,” he says. “However, if they would ever accept GMO tobacco, it would revolutionize tobacco seed and tobacco farming. Disease pressure of any type would be a thing of the past. Farmers would no longer be in fear of tomato spotted wilt, spreading tobacco mosaic virus or deciding which race of black shank they are having to fight in any given field.”
Growing media and trays
In its Flue-Cured Tobacco Information Guide, North Carolina State University (NCSU) Extension specialists recommend selecting high-quality growing medium made of peat with a low and well-mixed nutrient fertility combination that usually includes vermiculite and perlite.
“The media needs to be the most consistent available,” says Wilbur Taylor, general manager of Carolina Soil Co. in Kinston, N.C. “At this point, some different formulas have been tried with some success, but the old Cornell peat-lite mix has shown more consistent germination since 1954. Even that mix has to be adapted for the float system.”
To promote uniform seed emergence, N.C. Extension advises filling trays evenly with media, then dropping the seeds in the middle of the tray cells. “Being able to drop the seed in the center of the dibble helps,” Taylor says, “but the condition of the tray, whether [it is] old or new, is the most important thing. Growers need a tray that can be used economically one year, and then dispose of it. This will cut chemical expense by decreasing disease and increasing yield.”
A year ago, Chuck Miglianti of Beltwide Inc. in Tampa, Fla., introduced a shallow medium tray based on his own worldwide research and that of David Smith, an NCSU Extension specialist and current head of the crop science department.
“We cut the cell capacity in half in a 288 [cell tray] to 8.5 cubic centimeters of volume versus 17 in a traditional depth and had no loss in germination, plant numbers or plant stature at transplanting,” Miglianti says. “This can reduce the cost of soil media to the grower by one-half.”
When using the shallow trays to save money, he advises to pour in the least amount of growing medium.
In 2007, Miglianti worked with NCSU Extension specialist Loren Fisher to see how the Beltwide hard plastic float tray would perform in the greenhouse. With the help of NCSU, Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International, industry vendors outside the tobacco industry developed the tray for him. The tray will become virtually permanent with slick sides. Growers can easily clean it, he says, and diseases will not carry over into the next growing season.
Cross Creek has tested new trays from Beltwide and says the results have been good. In growing media, Baker believes growers focus on what offers consistency in producing a healthy seedling. “They want all their media to hold the same amount of water while not drying out too fast or oversaturating the trays, causing the seed to die,” he says.