Back-breaking beginning: Seeds planted to start Wilson County tobacco season

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Lynn Pittman’s back might be achy from leaning over to float 4,200 trays of tobacco seeds, but he can rest easy knowing that more than a million tobacco seedlings have a good start.

Pittman spent a couple of days bent at an awkward angle to place hundreds of polystyrene trays on ponds of water in the farm’s hydroponic greenhouses.

Many other Wilson County tobacco farmers did the same thing last week.

“This is kicking off the season. It is the beginning of the 2017 tobacco crop,” said Norman Harrell, Wilson County Cooperative Extension agricultural agent. “It is very important to have a good start, so you can’t have a good start unless you have good plants and so we want to take time and do it right and grow very good tobacco seedlings so that we can carry excellent tobacco seedlings to the fields. It is a very important first step.”

Lynn and his twin brother Glenn own Pittman Brothers Farms on Frank Price Church Road near Black Creek.

“Their’s is a very good example of a Wilson County farming operation where they are going to grow corn, soybeans and wheat in addition to tobacco,” Harrell said.

Tobacco seeds are so small that they cannot be planted out in the fields with good results. Each seed comes with a clay coating on it that makes it round and handleable.

The Pittmans use a seeder that feeds trays automatically, filling each square cell with potting soil. A spinning brush makes a smooth layer of soil.

“It will go through what they call a rolling dibbler, which makes a little small indention in the top made perfect for the seed to roll right to the middle of the cell,” said Harrell. “Then it will go underneath a rolling seeder and that will drop the seed in the cell.”

The seeder machine is 99 percent accurate, said Glenn Pittman, whose job it is to scan the tray’s 338 cells to make sure the seed has dropped properly into the center.

“The edge is the worst,” said Glenn Pittman. “Sometimes they will land right here on the edge and roll off instead of rolling in the hole, so you might see me doctor up a tray once in a while.”

Each cell gets one brightly colored seed.

“That’s one thing about having them red,” sad Glenn Pittman. “It glows.”

The farmers try not to waste any because the seeds are expensive, about $350 for a bottle of 180,000.

“They are not cheap,” said Harrell. “But compared to what they pay for other seeds, it’s not that bad.”

Each tray is taken out to the farm’s greenhouses and floated.

“We’ll put about 2,400 right in this one greenhouse right here. They will be here about 60 to 70 days before they will be ready to set out, hopefully,” said Lynn Pittman.

The water is fertilized by a series of pipes and the plants are fed from the bottom up.

“That water is going to absorb right through the bottom and go right to the top,” said Lynn Pittman. “It will take about five days to eight days for it to germinate. You will start seeing a little leaf coming out the top and a root will start coming out the bottom. It gets real bunching down there at the bottom. That’s how it’s done, It works pretty good.”

The greenhouses will be kept at a minimum temperature of 70 degrees at night and around 85 degrees in the daytime with the use of heaters and curtains.

The Pittmans hope to get about 90 percent or better of the seeds to germinate and produce a seedling that is about six inches tall.

“Your goal is to get 300 or 310 settable plants out of this tray. If you can do that, you’ve got a good stand,” said Glenn Pittman.

“Some years, it’s better than that and some years it’s less than that,” added Lynn Pittman. “It depends on how good the germination is. The main thing is to keep the disease out.”

This is by far the most common system for growing transplants in Wilson County and it has been done this way since the 1990s.

“There is one grower that uses an overhead house and that means he does not float his trays in water. He waters overhead,” Harrell said.

Most farmers are growing the seedlings for their own use, but sometimes a farmer’s extra plants get sold.

“There are some people that just have greenhouses and just grow plants to sell. We have several of those in the county,” Harrell said.

The Harrells aren’t sure if they will sell any of their plants.

“If we have any left over and we don’t have any disease, we usually do,” said Lynn Harrell. “I will sell some, but I don’t guarantee them to anybody else except us right now.”

According to Harrell, most of the tobacco seedlings will be transplanted into the field in mid-April.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818