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Tobacco farmers race to get the crop in

By Drew C. Wilson • Sep 5, 2017 at 7:00 AM

WILSON COUNTY, N.C. — Farmers are in a sprint to harvest cutters on a rapidly ripening tobacco crop in Wilson County.

"From the farmer's perspective, it is a race to the finish now to harvest the tobacco before it over ripens and burns up in the field," said Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County.

Growers have 9,800 acres of tobacco planted in Wilson County, more than the 8,500 acres planted in 2016.

"In the middle of August, the crop looked fantastic, but it has been changing rapidly as the tobacco matures and ripens," Harrell said.

"The crop is ripening at a very fast rate. I have seen this crop change a lot in the last two weeks due to weather effects, age of the crop and things like that, so now it is just a matter of how long this crop will hold on in order for the farmers to get the crop in the house and barned."

Farmers are fortunate that the recent threat of a potential cyclone moving up the coast last week only resulted in light rains and hardly any wind.

"It is a true blessing that this depression didn't form and stayed off our coast," Harrell said. "We were very, very fortunate."

Harrell said that tobacco growers are hoping to recover from a general poor quality crop in 2016 when only $37,181,997 in sales was produced.

"We've got a pretty good tobacco crop in the field," Harrell said. "This year's crop has really been an interesting crop, and every year is different."

Wilson went through a really wet period early in the growing season, followed by a dry period, and then finally some needed rain.

"We're kind of right on pace with where we would normally be for a crop right now," Harrell said. "The factor that could help this crop hold on to the end is having cooler temperatures," Harrell said. "Really hot, or really windy or rainy conditions, or any extreme, will just hasten the maturity of the crop."

Tobacco farmers have already taken lugs to market, which opened in early August. Sale prices were between $1 and 1.25 per pound for lugs in mid-August.

Farmers are currently working on cutters, or the second harvest on the stalk.

Mann Mullen of Big M Tobacco LLC said cutters from Wilson County have started arriving at his warehouse. Cutters were sold on the warehouse floor Wednesday for $1.50.

"Prices are a little hard to gauge," Harrell said. "I think prices are OK. The farmers knew the prices ahead of time. It's really just the quality of the tobacco and how it's graded."

Industry observers said that about half the tobacco traded in the country will be through Wilson County warehouses.

"You always want your crop to be the best quality it can be to receive top dollar," Harrell said. "We've had a mixture with some really good quality tobacco, some average quality tobacco, and, fortunately, not a lot of low-quality tobacco."

Bryant Lancaster, manager at Lancaster Farms of Stantonsburg, said it really comes down to fertilization. The Lancaster family has been farming the land for eight generations in Wilson County.

"A lot of growers this year, more so than others, have backed down on their fertilization, especially nitrogen, to try to get better quality for the tobacco companies," Lancaster said. "They put a strong emphasis this year on achieving better quality on the crop, and lower nitrogen rates usually will give you a better quality in the end game. The problem with backing down on your fertilization is what Norman said exactly. It can ripen up on you really quick, and then it's a race to try to get it out before it starts breaking down in the field and taking losses on the back end."

Another problem with that is housing.

Lancaster grew 1,050 acres of tobacco this year.

"You've got to have enough barns to get the crop out as quick as possible and turn the barns in a manner where you can get all your acres out pretty quick," Lancaster said. "But talking to other growers and comparing them to us, we actually fertilized a little heavier than most, and it is working in our favor. I see our crop in better shape than most. Most of them are in more of a panic than we are just because we did put a little more fertilizer than most, so I feel good about where we are."

When a farmer drops back the rate of fertilizer, he might not have as many pounds in the end.

"We're just hoping that we can get the pounds that we have contracted with the lower rates of nitrogen," Lancaster said. We're trying to achieve the quality and make the companies happy.

"I think we're going to be OK. I don't know what the rest of the growers are looking like as far as pounds, but I feel confident with ours."

Like other growers, both 2016 and 2015 were not the best for tobacco.

"Mainly it comes down to weather conditions," Lancaster said. "We didn't get the pounds that we needed, and the quality was more so an issue last year than anything. That's why these companies were putting an emphasis on achieving better quality this year and that was a direct effect from 2016 crop."

Lancaster agreed that farmers need a good year in 2017 to make for loses in recent years.

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(c)2017 The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.)

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