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Tobacco not as high quality as usual

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By James Roberts

Yields are up, but quality is down. That's the story for Taylor County's latest tobacco crop, according to Pat Hardesty, Taylor County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

"This is probably the worst quality we've had in 30 years due to the curing season," Hardesty said. "This year we had a dry, low humidity, so tobacco dried rather than cured."

The result was a yellowish color, Hardesty said, a symptom seen statewide. Manufacturers prefer a darker, chocolate color.

"The manufacturers say they smoke and burn better," Hardesty said.

Hardesty said the lower quality will likely result in a lower price. However, there is a silver lining.

"Yieldwise, this year is better than we've had in a little while," Hardesty said.

Some farmers have reported yields ranging from 2,300 pounds to 3,400 pounds per acre. That's a significant improvement over the county's 2,150 average in previous years.

"Most people have surpassed the average yield."

According to Hardesty, the higher yield will likely cancel out the lower price.

"It probably will come close to evening us out."

Last year's average price was about $1.68. It's too early to predict this year's average price, Hardesty said.

Taylor County farmer John McLean's early crop was not as good a quality as he'd hoped. However, the second crop looks better, he said. The color is darker, closer to a chocolate color buyers prefer.

McLean, who grew 72 acres of tobacco this year, said this year's crop weighs more than last year's.

"Last year's crop didn't weigh in well, but it cured well."

His second harvest this year weighed about a fourth more than the year's first harvest.

As is always the case, the weather was crucial this year, Hardesty said.

"Dry weather crops like tobacco tend to weigh heavier in dry weather than when we have heavy rainfall."

And the County had plenty of dry weather, spending much of the growing season in the grip of a drought.

But there was rain, which came at just the right time.

"We had some rain in July," Hardesty said. "That saved us."

Black shank has contributed to some yield losses, Hardesty said. The disease, a fungus that attacks the plant's stalk, kills tobacco from the root up.

"It was pretty severe this year."

The disease is controlled by crop rotation, chemicals and drainage.

Farmers want a role in developing price contracts

Last month, Philip Morris offered its growers a contract paying 7 cents more over the previous year's prices.

For a number of Central Kentucky farmers, that's not enough.

Spurred by that contract offer, local farmer Bernie Cave helped organize a meeting of tobacco farmers in an effort to provide farmers representation in the group that determines contract prices.

About 100 farmers from 10 counties attended that meeting, which took place in Lebanon last Wednesday.

"We feel that at least we ought to be represented," Cave said. "Everyone at the meeting was in 100 percent agreement that they were not satisfied with what they are being offered."

A 7-cent increase means little, Cave said, because production costs have risen so much. Couple that with a tough growing season and farm payments, some farmers may be left with empty pockets.

"It's just hard to generate enough to feed your family," Cave said. "By the time I make my payments and pay the workers, there's nothing left for me."

The next step, Cave said, is to organize a group consisting of farmers throughout the state. Without a large number of members, the group would likely not accomplish much.

A second meeting has been tentatively set for Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Marion County Fairgrounds' Floral Hall in Lebanon. For more information, contact Cave at 789-1489.

"If we can get interest from across the state, we're going to push forward," Cave said.

- Staff Writer James Roberts can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 226 or by e-mail at writer@cknj.com.