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Georgia tobacco suffers under soggy summer skies

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia tobacco farmers continue to harvest and sell a crop that had a promising start this year. But a soggy Georgia summer washed away a five-year drought and what could have been a great crop. It’s just another change for farmers used to plenty of them.

In early-June, the crop was expected “to be a barn-buster,” said J. Michael Moore, tobacco agronomist with the UGA Extension Service.

Then it rained

Then the skies opened up, and it rained, he said. And it hasn’t stopped.

“In the tobacco business, dry weather can scare you,” he said. “But wet weather can ruin you.”

Excessively wet ground can starve the plant of oxygen and literally drown it in a field, he said.

Other tobacco-producing states have lost much more tobacco than Georgia to the rain, he said. However, he doesn’t expect Georgia farmers will meet their 64.3 million pound quota, the amount they are allowed to grow under a federal program. Yields will be less than the average of 22,000 pounds per acre.

But this year’s crop will be better than the 2002 crop, which was hit hard by disease, he said.

Because the rain has not let up and the threat of tropical storms this time of year, farmers are eager to finish harvest. But Moore warns farmers not to rush or pick leaves not ready. This can hurt the quality of the leaves. They should wait for the tobacco to mature in the field if they can.

Georgia’s tobacco auction opened July 29 and will run along with harvest through August. The first tobacco sold comes from the bottom of the plant and is considered of less quality. Prices have remained normal at around $1.68 per pound.

Changes

Growers hoped that the wet weather this growing season would change. It never did. But other things have changed for them in recent years, Moore said.

Farmers used to sell their tobacco bundled loosely in sheets. At the request of tobacco companies, tobacco farmers now have to package their tobacco in 750-pound bales to be sold. Farmers had to purchase the balers to do this.

After tobacco leaves are picked, farmers dry them in barns before taking them to market or selling. Research indicated that the exhaust from barn heaters flowed through the drying tobacco and increased certain carcinogenic qualities of the tobacco.

Through an industry program, farmers retrofitted their barns with heat-exchangers three years ago to prevent this problem. It appears now that many of these exchangers were rushed into the market and still leak the exhaust they were manufactured to prevent.

This is a problem that must be fixed soon. Tobacco companies randomly check for the carcinogen. The industry program guaranteed growers a three-year warranty on the exchangers, which expires this year. The UGA Extension Service is currently helping growers identify exchanger problems.

The federal tobacco program that guarantees growers a certain price for their crop has also “dramatically changed,” Moore said. Tobacco quota has been cut almost in half.

Most farmers now forego the traditional tobacco markets where auctioneers rattled off buyers’ bids. Companies now contract most tobacco directly from growers.

And more changes may be in store for tobacco farmers. Legislators, including both Georgia senators, in Washington now call for an end to the federal tobacco program. Growers would be compensated for the loss of the program. But for now, Georgia tobacco farmers just want to get this season behind them.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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