October 31, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman
LEXINGTON, KY.

The state’s tobacco crop seemed to brush off this summer’s drought and yielded well for growers who saw most of their other farming enterprises languish in the hot, dry summer and fall.

The crop likely will yield close to last year’s level, said Gary Palmer, tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. However, dry conditions have made curing tough, and last week’s heavy rains came too late for much improvement for most tobacco crops. 

Tobacco requires several weeks of curing to change it from a green color to yellow to dark brown. During this process, chemical changes occur in the tobacco to bring it to the quality tobacco companies desire. Under extremely dry conditions, especially with low humidity, tobacco mostly just dries up rather than cures, Palmer said. If the process is too quick, some of the harsh chemicals and yellow color are left behind, making the leaf a less than desirable product.

That is what happened this year in many tobacco barns in Kentucky. The crop is curing with a color that companies have not been keen to purchase in the past. This will be the first crop with this particular coloring since tobacco production switched to a free market system from the old production control price support system.

In 1999 under the old production system, tobacco that was considered too high in color and therefore of poorer quality, was primarily rejected by companies and ultimately ended up being discarded, Palmer said.

“I hope companies are a little lenient on color this year,” he said. “Some growers are teetering on whether to continue, and this could affect their decision.”

How they purchase this year’s crop could play an important role in whether companies maintain their grower base. If companies purchase the crop without huge discounts, it could encourage producers to stay in business and even encourage additional production, Palmer said.

The recent moisture may help a few crops if tobacco is going to hang in the barn for a while, but higher temperatures are needed to create the proper chemical reaction needed to improve quality, Palmer said.

With larger acreage and reliance on migrant labor, most farmers don’t have the luxury of waiting in hopes the quality might improve, he said. In their case, the rains are helping tobacco to get pliable enough for farmers to remove it from the barn, strip the leaf from the stalk and prepare it for market. 

About a quarter of Kentucky’s tobacco crop has been stripped, according to estimates by the Kentucky Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The service reports that farmers are rating the quality of the crop as mostly fair to good.

Contact: 

Gary Palmer, 859-257-8667