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Published October 03, 2009, 12:00 AM

Tobacco farmers face setbacks

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Recent heavy rains that soaked Kentucky delivered a late-season setback to some tobacco farmers as their leaf ripens, dampening their hopes for a bumper crop after a couple of drought years.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Recent heavy rains that soaked Kentucky delivered a late-season setback to some tobacco farmers as their leaf ripens, dampening their hopes for a bumper crop after a couple of drought years.

More than a half-foot of rain fell across part of the Bluegrass State last week as the bulk of the burley tobacco crop was curing in barns — an autumn ritual when the long green leaves gradually change to reddish brown in a process that prepares the leaf for market.

The prolonged stretch of wet weather in the state that leads the nation in burley production at least briefly heightened the risk of tobacco being afflicted with mold or fungus that can rot away part of the leaf.

Fields with uncut tobacco turned into muddy bogs, slowing harvest and hurting leaf quality.

“It’s certainly putting a hardship on the farmers,” said Nick Carter, agricultural extension agent in Fayette County in central Kentucky.

That has added to the anxiety of farmers growing tobacco under contract for tobacco companies. A poor crop can be turned away or fetch a lower price.

“There’s a lot of fear with guys knowing that the tobacco companies aren’t going to take low-quality tobacco,” said Kenny Seebold, a UK extension tobacco specialist.

Burley that reached the barn early in the season “may still do well,” he said, but later-planted tobacco housed just before the onslaught of rains “may have some major issues.”

Another factor, he said, is that “some farmers crammed the tobacco in the barn too tightly due to limited barn space, and that is just adding to the problem.”

The nation’s largest tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris USA, remains upbeat about prospects for the Kentucky burley crop, which is blended with other types of tobacco in making cigarettes.

“Our perspective is that it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good year,” said David Sutton, a Philip Morris spokesman.

In northern Kentucky, fieldhand Clinton Yates was slogging in a muddy field Tuesday where yellow, wilted tobacco leaves showed signs of too much rain.

Around him were tobacco leaves stretching only a few inches long when they should extend 2 feet, he said. Yates said only 8 or 9 acres of tobacco in a 54-acre field would be salvageable.

“We’re going to put it in the barn and see what it will turn out like — as long as it doesn’t rain again,” Yates said.

This year’s burley production in Kentucky was forecast at 160.6 million pounds as of Sept. 1, up 9 percent from last year. Burley yield was projected at 2,200 pounds per acre, above last year’s output.

Seebold said he heard from some Kentucky farmers that the summer growing season was so favorable that the burley was “really heavy” and “hard to handle” during harvesting.

Rusty Thompson, a tobacco grower in Woodford County in central Kentucky, said the wet weather will slightly reduce yield for his burley now curing. But there’s also an upside — those conditions will turn the leaf a darker shade that tobacco companies prefer.

Tobacco cures ideally in warm daytime temperatures followed by cool, dewy nighttime conditions, which allows the leaf to take in moisture at night and dry down in the day. Growers had a different problem the past two years, when dry conditions hampered tobacco curing, Seebold said.

Gary Carter, agricultural extension agent in Harrison County in northern Kentucky, tried to remain upbeat about the crop’s prospects: “We could go into a dry time, and this would come out just fine.”

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