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SoVaNow.com / July 25, 2013The auctioneer’s chant on the warehouse floor may be an increasingly distant memory, but Southside Virginia continues to produce tobacco, and lots of it.
Growers have begun their annual harvest of the golden leaf amid signs of higher sales volumes, albeit for tobacco of uneven quality. The unusually heavy summer rainfall has been a boon for some fields, although in other places the moisture has literally watered down the quality of the crop.
Virginia’s 2013 flue-cured tobacco production is expected to rise 15 percent from 2012, to a total of 55.2 million pounds, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In the past few days, the opening wave of low-stalk tobacco has been rolling into Stabilization warehouses, where tobacco that isn’t sold under direct contract to cigarette makers is marketed.
T.Y. Mason, manager of Piedmont Tobacco Warehouse in Danville, called the crop he’s seen so far “is first quality. And that is first pass tobacco” — a reference to bottom-of-the-stalk primings. Piedmont Tobacco Warehouse received its first 100 bales of tobacco on Tuesday, Mason said. The warehouse graded 94 bales as first quality and the remaining 6 bales as second quality. He expects the first quality bales to fetch a price of at least $1.76 at auction on July 30.
Still, some farmers are reluctant to declare this year’s crop a success. If production is up, then that’s only because there are more acres of tobacco planted this year than last, said Joe Fariss, a retired Buffalo Junction tobacco farmer. Elaine Lindholm with the state agriculture department confirmed Fariss’ point: Virginia will harvest 23,000 acres of tobacco, up 3,000 acres from last year.
Fariss and other farmers also say they would be surprised if tobacco leaves weigh as much this year because of growing conditions. As a general rule, tobacco likes soil to be on the dry side when it’s first planted, and more wet as harvest time approaches, explained Mecklenburg County extension agent Taylor Clarke: “The saying is that tobacco likes a dry June and a wet July.”
Mason has a similar view, saying he expects the yield for Old Belt tobacco — the traditional term for the crop in Southside Virginia and northern North Carolina — to be down about 10 percent over last year. This is far better than tobacco on the eastern shore of North Carolina, says Mason, where he expects to see a 25 percent decrease in yield.
This year, the cold wet spring not only delayed planting but resulted in unfavorable growing conditions. Clarke added, “I don’t think many of the farmers growing today have experienced conditions like we saw this year with a wet May, June, and July.” Nevertheless, both Clarke and Mason agree that the quality of leaves in this year’s crop should be better than average.
Even though the harvest of flue-cured tobacco has begun, Clarke believes this year’s crop might improve as long as the dry weather continues. “Remember, the top third of the plant produces 60 percent of the yield.” Flue-cured tobacco is pulled in multiple passes, with at least ten days between each pass.
Another reason the yield numbers may improve is a factor tied to parts of Halifax and Mecklenburg counties: the rise of organic tobacco farmers. Clarke told how “after the buyout, tobacco all but disappeared in western Mecklenburg and eastern Halifax, until Santa Fe [Natural Brands, with facilities in Oxford, N.C.]. Now there are between 600 and 800 acres of organic tobacco grown in that area. Most of the ones that got back into it [growing tobacco] are organic.”
Santa Fe is best known for its Natural American Spirit cigarette brand. The company was purchased by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 2001.
“From a yield standpoint, you would think this year’s weather would hurt the organic farmer even more,” said Clarke, “But because of the way organic tobacco is fertilized, with a slow release fertilizer, the additional moisture has not hurt that crop as much as conventionally grown tobacco.”
Still, “too much water is too much,” says Clarke, explaining that even the organic tobacco crop might suffer from continued wet weather.
Mason could not speak to the quality of the organic crop since his warehouse only deals in conventionally-grown tobacco.
As harvesting begins in earnest, tobacco farmers across the area are asking for one thing — less rain, and more sun to ripen the crop in the field.
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