Published on 07/16/09

Georgia tobacco yields worst in decades

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Volatile spring weather and diseases have left Georgia’s tobacco crop hurting, as farmers prepare to harvest what could be their worst yields in decades, says a University of Georgia tobacco specialist.

Earlier this spring, farmers had one of the toughest times in recent memory just trying to get the tobacco crop securely planted, said J. Michael Moore, a tobacco expert with UGA Cooperative Extension. Repeated rain deluges of five and six inches across south Georgia, where the crop is grown, washed away planting beds, chemicals, plants and delayed planting all together.

“There were a lot of headaches just getting started this year,” he said.

Farmers eventually planted 15,000 acres by May 1, he said. Then came more rain followed by a hot, dry June. Then the diseases hit -- hard.

Tobacco’s deadliest foe is tomato spotted wilt virus, which is carried by tiny insects called thrips. Over the past few years, it has infected 15 percent of the plants. This year, as much as 30 percent of plants statewide have shown symptoms of the disease. Many plants have died and yields have been reduced, he said.

The increased damage from TSWV this year was likely due to the weather. “We know there is a relation to the type of weather we had and this disease pressure,” Moore said. “But at this point we don’t know exactly what that relation is.”

Due to the excessive rain, two other diseases called target spot and white mold also caused problems for farmers, he said.

Of the 15,000 acres planted, Moore said, 1,700 acres were lost either to extreme rain or disease. Due to weather- and disease-related problems, tobacco yields are expected to average 1,700 pounds per acre, or 400 pounds per acre less than last year. This is the lowest average yield since 1973.

In total, Georgia farmers are expected to harvest 23.8 million pounds of tobacco this year, or 29 percent less than last year. Harvest will start in the next two weeks, a month behind the typical schedule.

The number of tobacco farmers continues to decline in Georgia. Today, only 200 actively grow the crop. There were around 350 two years ago.

In 2004, Georgia had 1,000 tobacco farmers. That same year, the federal government ended its Depression-era tobacco quota program at the farmers' request. It 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 can grow as much tobacco as they feel they need to fill contracts they get directly from cigarette manufactures or marketing companies. For decades, south Georgia has been a place to get sweet-flavored, aromatic tobacco, the kind manufacturers add to tobacco blends to improve taste.

But delivering quality tobacco this year will be hard for Georgia, Moore said. And making any profit will be, too.

Tobacco quality is graded on a scale from 1 to 4, with No. 1 being the best, which has golden leaves and no blemishes. Most companies now only want No. 1- or No. 2-graded tobacco. They have enough of the No. 3 and No. 4 in storage to use for the next 15 years, he said.

“Growers are concerned that the companies are no longer seeing south Georgia as a reliable region for quality tobacco,” he said. “There is a demand for this style of tobacco, and there will continue to be. But it’s critical for us to produce the tobacco in this area to keep the market.”

For now, the remaining farmers are cobbling together a tobacco-growing industry in Georgia, scavenging from old, abandoned equipment to fix equipment currently in use.

“I’d hate to be a dealer trying to sell any tobacco-related equipment today,” Moore said. “Nobody has the money to buy anything new.”

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