Tobacco crop gets a cold, wet start

Farmers rooting for warm weather, halt to China tariffs

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Mother Nature hasn’t cooperated with tobacco farmers this spring.

“Ever since we got past the first of March, it has either been windy, cold or wet and what we have been battling lately has been cold and wet conditions,” said Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County.

“We are just getting started,” said David Blalock, owner of Blalock Farms, as farmworkers pressed to get transplants in the ground Monday ahead of forecast rains.

Monday was the first day of transplanting for Blalock, who expects to put about 1.1 million plants in the ground. That’s about 6,800 plants for each of the 170 acres he will be planting this year.

“It’s a prime time to be trying to be getting it in the ground now,” said Blalock. “It’s time to go and we are going to be trying to make the best of it to get the crop in the ground as quickly as possible. It’s been a little challenging this year to get everything done on time.”

“We are behind where we should be,” Harrell said.

It hasn’t helped that Wilson County had frost last Friday and Saturday morning, which is extremely rare for this time of year.

“Most of the time, April 15 is our last frost date,” Harrell said. “There were tobacco seedlings that were out. It appears that the damage to them will be minor.”

Cool weather can stunt a tobacco plant’s growth.

“It is a plant that is going to just sit there when it is cool and not grow. It’s going to take warmer temperatures for the plant grow,” Harrell said. “What we would like to have is some nice warm temperatures in the daytime, maybe about 80 to 85 degrees and nighttime temperatures about 55 to 60 degrees would be ideal for getting these tobacco plants off and growing.”

About an inch of rain per week would also be beneficial for the plants.

“We will need enough moisture to get this crop established and rooted and we will just need some rain through the season to keep the growth moving forward,” Harrell said.

Harrell said dealing with the weather is one of the challenges of farming.

“You are working with Mother Nature and taking what the weather presents, but we have normal weather patterns and we are certainly out of one of those patterns right now with the cooler temperatures and the wetter soil,” Harrell said.

The soil in the county was just getting in good shape drying down from the previous rains when this week’s rains came through, muddying the fields again.

Wilson County had 9,818 acres of flue-cured tobacco in 2017

Considering crop rotations, Harrell suspects 2018 tobacco acreage to be will be down up to 5 percent over 2017.

In 2017, tobacco growers had a fair to good year, earning $49,215,769 in Wilson County.

“That made up for the previous two years that the yield and quality were not as good,” Harrell said. “Our yield was OK in 2017, but the quality was exceptional and we really need a repeat of that in 2018. Our tobacco market is quality tobacco.”

A concern right now for tobacco farmers is tariffs that could possibly be imposed on tobacco going to China.

“There is, of course, concern because they are a major country for us to export our leaf to, so the growers are really hopeful that the politicians will get into these trade talks and get everything worked out,” Harrell said. “We don’t really know how much is bought by China. I have seen some reports estimated at 60 million pounds. I suspect that it could be at least that amount. We are exporting just about two-thirds of our tobacco crop and China is one of our main purchasers of our leaf.”

Blalock followed his father into tobacco farming in Wilson County.

“He started farming after he got out of World War II and I began in 1979,” Blalock said. “My income is exclusively driven by agriculture and tobacco and row crops. It’s been good to me. It’s been challenging. There have been a lot of changes over the years. It has been mind-boggling how much things have changed and how we do things differently than we used to, but that’s what you’ve got to do to stay efficient and stay productive and the cost of all of the equipment now, you have just got to run it much more to utilize it to make it cost efficient.”

In the early 1990s, farmers began shifting to greenhouse transplants.

“We grow these plants hydroponically, which means the Styrofoam tray floats in water and each cell has its own tobacco plant,” Harrell said. “It takes a lot less labor for a grower to grow these plants and the plants are much more uniform than what we used to grow. And there is much more efficiency with the use of our seed. Today, labor drives a lot of our decisions and we have found that this is a great way to produce a nice plant with a minimal labor.”

Greenhouses give farmers the opportunity to optimize conditions during germination and growth of the seedlings.

“Mainly the difference is that you have control over the temperature and the humidity to some degree,” Blalock said.

Having that control means that 85 to 90 percent of the plants that germinate are usable plants.

“We don’t have as much waste as we used to have,” Blalock said. “Hopefully we’ll have a great crop to brag about.”