Published on 02/08/07

Disease keeps tobacco growers' profit window small

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The Georgia farmers who still grow tobacco will likely battle a deadly plant disease again all season, trying to squeeze out a profit come harvest time.

If the profit window of opportunity was a foot wide a dozen years ago, it's only a 3-inch gap today, says Fred Wetherington, a tobacco farmer in Lowndes County, near the Florida line.

"It's hard to get the yields that you need to make a profit now," Wetherington said.

Adverse weather can always hurt crops, but one thing will surely stand in the way of profitable tobacco yields this year, just as it has for the past few years.

The tomato spotted wilt virus hits other Georgia crops like tomatoes, peppers and peanuts. But it hits tobacco the hardest. Over the past three years, it has infected as much as 35 percent of the crop and destroyed 15 percent to 20 percent.

"If it were not for tomato spotted wilt, we could be hitting the yields we need," Wetherington said. Before TSWV, he said, growing tobacco was cheaper and potential yields much higher.

Scientists with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences have developed systems, strategies and publications to help farmers reduce the risk of TSWV and control it and other diseases and pests.

To protect against TSWV, for example, a farmer should transplant after April 7 greenhouse-grown plants treated with a concoction of Admire and Actigard. He'll need to do it, too, on a day that isn't too wet, dry, hot, cold or windy. Plants treated with Actigard don't tolerate stress.

Wetherington joined about a dozen other farmers from three surrounding counties at an informal lunch meeting Feb. 6 at the UGA Cooperative Extension office in Lowndes County.

In a region where almost every county used to have a tobacco meeting with 20 to 30 growers at each, they're the few of a relative handful still growing tobacco, said J. Michael Moore, a UGA Extension tobacco agronomist.

There's no comprehensive list, but Moore figures about 400 farmers will grow tobacco in Georgia this year. This is down from about 1,000 in 2004, when the federal government, at farmers' request, ended its Depression-era tobacco quota program.

The tobacco program provided price support but restricted how much tobacco farmers could grow and where. Farmers and quota owners were compensated for the end of the program.

Farmers now are free to grow the tobacco acreage they feel they need to fill contracts they get from cigarette manufacturers or marketing companies. Georgia farmers sold about 41 million pounds last year.

Since the end of the program, things appear to have stabilized a bit, Moore said. The growers left now have the know-how and on-farm infrastructure to make a go of it.

Growers last year grew 18,000 acres and may even slightly increase that this year. But costs will be at least 3 percent higher at around $4,120 per acre, Moore said.

If a farmer can receive an average price between $1.55 and $1.60 per pound and make around 2,500 to 2,800 pounds per acre, he said, he may squeeze out a profit at best. At worst, he'll at least lose less money than if he didn't grow tobacco, due to fixed investments like machinery, irrigation and curing barns.

A conservative average for contract prices last year was $1.50 per pound or a little higher, the farmers at the meeting agreed. The average yield was 2,500 pounds per acre, compared to pre-TSWV yields as much as 500 pounds higher.

That window of opportunity to make money growing tobacco in Georgia will likely not get any larger if left alone, Moore said. Growers will need new and innovative ways to force it wider in the future.

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