March 11, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman

Prices being offered for tobacco under contract for the upcoming growing season are approximately 45 cents per pound less than 2004 prices. However, even with the lower prices, tobacco growers can still make decent returns if they are good managers and maintain greater attention to detail to keep yields and quality up.

Quality is a key factor in production but that does not only mean color, it also means producing a product that contains other traits companies want, including leaf free of pesticide residue and low in nitrosamines, said Gary Palmer, a tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

“For farmers it can be hard to put a direct connect on how to do that,” he said. “The key is listening to what the companies have to say.” 

Producing high-yielding tobacco also will be a key to success in this new marketing era. To be successful growers will need to have ready access to barns and land, average at least 2,300 pounds of tobacco per acre and produce one- and two-quality leaf, said Bob Pearce, UK Extension tobacco specialist.

Without enough pounds, it will be difficult for some producers to remain viable. However, it is important not to focus on yield at all costs, Palmer said. Both quantity and quality are necessary.

One detail growers cannot afford to overlook is to know and understand production restrictions or requirements of their contracts. Many of the contracts require that tobacco be produced from either screened or low converter varieties. Tobacco buyers adamant about this requirement because it has the potential to lower the level of carcinogens in their products, Pearce said.

For the grower, there are two ways to be sure you are getting the right kind of seed. Look for varieties with the letters LC at the end of their name or look for the word screened on the label.

“Many of the popular varieties have been screened but there are some that have not been, so be sure and check the label,” Pearce said. “You should also keep the seed packages or at least record the lot number from all packages of seed used in case you are asked to verify that you have used screened seed.”

Screening does not change any of the agronomic or disease -resistance characteristics of the variety. TN 90 LC is exactly the same as TN 90. When selecting varieties, match variety resistance with disease potential. Look for consistently high yields across a range of environments, quality consistent with demand, and manageability such as sucker control, maturity, harvest and curing characteristics.

Timely transplanting young seedlings into the field can improve yield potential, reduce disease incidence and alleviate some curing concerns. Also it is important to detect and control insect problems before they get out of hand. Disease control can be aided through the use of crop rotation, appropriate variety selection and conservation tillage.

Follow label directions when using pesticides. All the contracts state that only pesticides that are labeled for use on tobacco can be used in the crop and they must be used in the manner in which they are labeled. This is required under federal law for pesticide use. Some contracts state that tobacco will be subject to testing by the buyer to verify compliance with this provision. The detection of residue from unlabeled pesticides could result in the loss of contract and the rejection of current and future sales.

Farmers also need to be aware that some pesticides, even when used according to label instructions, can leave undesirable residue levels. As a result, farmers must be willing to consider other options for some chemicals, and there are other options available, Palmer said.

Several contracts also specify the number of grades used. Grading in four stalk positions has been optional for the past several years but may now be required. Be sure to read your contract and ask questions of the buyer’s agents to be sure you clarify any grading requirements.

As of this time, the contracts do not specify any other production practices such as fertilization, topping height or variety used.

“It will not be business as usual,” Pearce said. 

Farmers can follow a few basic steps that will help them be competitive in a post buyout market. They include being aware of contract obligations and completing operations in a timely manner. Evaluate production costs, but don’t penny-pinch on inputs. Give the crop a chance because cash costs are about the same for a good crop as for a poor crop, he said. Finally, carefully consider changes to the operation such as appropriate variety selection, rotation and possible new production methods.

“Ultimately, your name is going to be in a database along with the tobacco characteristics you are supplying,” Palmer said. “If you plan to continue to do this down the road, you want to have good characteristics associated with your name, and it is certainly doable.”

Pearce and Palmer said they are seeing keen interest from growers in production information. A number of meetings have been held around the state. For more information on tobacco production, contact a county Extension office.



Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278

Contacts: Bob Pearce 859-257-5110
Gary Palmer 859-257-8667