Published on 06/15/05

Heavy rain, diseases hit Georgia tobacco crop

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia's tobacco crop looks fair overall. But plant disease problems and heavy rains in June have hurt some of the fields of Georgia's remaining tobacco farmers, says a University of Georgia specialist.

About 15 percent of Georgia's tobacco crop has been infected by the tomato spotted wilt virus, a deadly disease carried by small insects called thrips, said J. Michael Moore, a tobacco agronomist with the UGA Extension Service.

But in some fields, as much as 50 percent to 80 percent of the plants have been hit by this disease.

About 30 percent of the crop last year was infected with this disease. It contributed to a 15-percent decline in yields.

For the first time since 2000, tobacco mosaic virus has been widespread in Georgia's crop, too, Moore said. Some fields have as much as 30 percent of plants showing symptoms. The disease is believed to have come from infected seed.

TMV can be found in tobacco products -- cigarettes, snuff, chewing tobacco -- and transmitted to plants in fields after handling these products.

It's easily spread from plant to plant by tractors and humans. "One plant could potentially infect millions," he said. It is not as bad as TSWV. But it can reduce yields and quality.

"But the heavy rain has caused more losses than the diseases," Moore said.

Parts of south-central Georgia, where much of the state's tobacco is grown, have received 8 inches to 10 inches of rain since June 1, according to the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network.

That has been too much rain for tobacco root systems, which need oxygen to survive. The roots suffocate, preventing water and nutrients from reaching the tops, which begin to wilt.

The flooded root systems will recover and begin to grow again, Moore said. But this will cut into yields this year.

Georgia had about 1,000 tobacco farmers in 2004. About half that many planted tobacco this year, he said. There may be even fewer next year.

Most Georgia farmers contract directly with tobacco companies now. Contract prices this year, Moore said, are $1.19 per pound to a $1.45 per pound.

The costs for electricity, fuel, fertilizers and crop chemicals, all needed for tobacco production, have gone up as much 20 percent over last year when many of the contracts were made.

It will be tough for some farmers to break even this year with the current contract prices. Moore expects 10 percent to 15 percent fewer farmers will plant tobacco next year.

But there is still a lot of interest in growing tobacco in Georgia. A few farmers in southeast Georgia grew it for the first time this year. And the Georgia Tobacco Tour, sponsored by the UGA Extension Service, drew 80 participants June 6-8.

The federal government ended the Depression-era tobacco quota program last fall. Under that program, only a certain amount of tobacco could be grown each year in the United States. It helped farmers get consistent prices and guaranteed tobacco companies a supply.

Through a buyout, tobacco companies will begin this month to pay $10.14 billion in compensation to U.S. farmers over the next 10 years for the end of the program.

No official numbers have been released, but Georgia farmers are believed to have planted 19,000 acres of tobacco this year.

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