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Growers keep their fingers crossed for a bumper crop

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Wyatt Martin of Clover has already started pulling tobacco this season. The crop is looking good everywhere, he says, although the first pullings have only recently started. (Elizabeth Farina photos)
SoVaNow.com / August 18, 2014


Tobacco growers agree: this year’s crop has the potential to be one of the best in years, although the late summer weather will determine whether the leaf that makes it to market is as good as what’s ripening out in the field.

As some 400 farmers in Virginia busily prepare the flue-cured tobacco, sales of the crop begin Wednesday in Danville and Oxford, N.C., at warehouses operated by U.S. Tobacco Cooperative, the successor of the Stabilization Corp. that existed under the disbanded federal tobacco program. Nowadays, traditional auctions of the golden leaf account for only a minority of the crop that goes to market; most tobacco is sold direct to cigarette makers under the contract system.

To date, fifty-nine percent of tobacco in the flue-cured region is reported to be in good or excellent condition, according to the United States Department of Agriculture/National Agricultural Statistics Service Virginia office.

Halifax County appears to be having a better-than-average season, according to Halifax County tobacco extension agent Chris Brown.

Wyatt Martin, who produces soybean, corn, and tobacco on his farm in Clover, agrees that everything is looking better compared to last year’s growing season. “Every one that I’ve seen looks good in the field,” Martin said.

Martin finished planting his tobacco crop the third week of May, avoiding some of the weather hazards that affected local farmers who had planted earlier in the month.

Brown noted in a Halifax County Ag Newsletter that tobacco planted in early May experienced a pounding rainfall followed by an early dry spell. However, the mild summer weather has mostly been good for the flue-cured tobacco crop.

Brown said he thinks the county will average around 2,800 to 3,000 pounds per acre in yield. Halifax is tied third with Brunswick County in Virginia flue-cured tobacco production, behind Pittsylvania and Mecklenburg counties, respectively. Even with the late maturing of the leaves, “one-fourth to one third of the ground leaves have been pulled.”

Mecklenburg County Tobacco Extension Agent Taylor Clarke concurred: “the producers have just started harvesting.”

Clarke explained that flue-cured tobacco, which ripens from the bottom upwards with the ready-to-harvest leaves pulled from the base of the plant, is produced from the last couple of weeks in July until the first frost of the year.

Mecklenburg had a late spring, cooler weather, and a dry spell in June, said Clarke. However, the weather did not hamper production. “We still have a tremendous potential for a good crop. I don’t think anybody’s upset about their crop.”

Last year, Mecklenburg had approximately 3,800 acres in production, even though it was a dry year. Clarke thinks the crop may be larger this year.

In Halifax County, Martin has already pulled his tobacco crop one time: “Got it all topped out and one pulling off,” he said. “We’ll pull it at least three more times.”

More than a decade after the end of the tobacco program and a consolidation wave within the industry, tobacco remains one of the top-10 commodities that Virginia exports, according to the U.S. Census foreign trade reports. For the Southside region — encompassing nine counties including Halifax, and Mecklenburg — agriculture is big business. Virginia ranks the fourth in the country in exporting tobacco.

In 2013, all of Virginia’s agricultural products accounted for $2.5 billion in international exports for the state, according to Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Seventy-eight percent of these exports included soybeans, animal feed, meats, and unprocessed tobacco. According to the 2012 available data, the Southside Region had its agriculture export industry valued at $56 million.

Across the region, flue-cured tobacco production is expected to total 50.6 million pounds, up seven percent from 2013, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.



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