Tobacco Harvest Looking Sizable

8/31/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

August may not have any official holidays, but Lancaster County is humming with traditional activities.

Tourist attractions are preparing to wind down on Labor Day, FFA students are grooming their livestock for the remaining fairs, and the county’s iconic tobacco harvest is in full swing.

“The harvest so far is going great,” said Pamela Haver, vice president of Trileaf Tobacco Co. in New Holland.

Haver’s crop is already one-quarter harvested, and her neighbors have cut one-quarter to one-third of their tobacco.

Rain has been plentiful this year, which may cause a minor dip in supply, but Haver said it would not be enough to change the market.

Some farmers have been spraying for blue mold, but the recent “mini dry spell” has also wiped out much of the mold, she said.

Some farmers have put a lot of land, as much as 12 to 15 acres, into tobacco this year.

Planting usually occurs in April and May, so harvest will likely last from now until mid-October.

Though a wet period has been forecast for September and hurricane season is supposed to produce many storms this year, none of that weather has visited Pennsylvania yet, Haver said.

“We don’t anticipate a lot of losses up here,” she said.

Trileaf contracts with Japan Tobacco International.

“We expect growers to be very pleased” with prices this year, Haver said.

Rain tends to keep tobacco leaves from thickening, so farmers may see leaves that are thinner than they were last year, Ben Green, a Trileaf buyer, said. As a result, weights may be lower this year.

Spotty rains this season may also make for a slightly lower total yield than 2012’s, he said.

Viruses have occasionally shown up, but blue mold has been the main problem this year.

Green has also seen some weather flecking. Rain pulls contaminants from the air, and the contaminants make spots on the tobacco leaves. It is not as problematic for burley, which is mostly chopped up for cigarette filler, as it is for Pennsylvania type 41, which is often used for cigar wrappers.

Jeff Graybill, a Lancaster County Extension agronomist, agreed with Green that the leaves may not be as thick this year. The plants are large, but the increased width is not much of a yield improvement over thicker leaves, he said.

“One issue which may crop up is how well the large plants cure down in the barns,” he said. Mold or shed burn can develop because of poor circulation.

Dry weather, along with cool nights and days that are not too hot, should help with curing, he said.

Graybill estimated that as much as 70 percent of Lancaster County’s 9,000 or so acres of tobacco may already be cut.

“We also have had very little hail, which is very damaging to tobacco,” he said.

Hail is a great concern for type 41, the wrapper variety. Maryland type 609 and burley, the cigarette varieties, are going to be shredded anyway, but farmers do not want to see those varieties battered either.

USDA’s Aug. 26 crop report estimated that half of the state’s tobacco is harvested, which is actually a little behind this time last year, when 55 percent had been cut. But this year is still ahead of the five-year average of 39 percent.

Lititz farmer Lloyd Reiff is half done with his harvest. He planted two varieties of burley —Tennessee 90 and Green River — along with Pennsylvania 41.

Reiff said the tobacco is the best quality in years and some of the biggest burley he has ever grown. He is also optimistic about the market for burley.

It has been “an easy year to grow tobacco,” he said.

Like other farmers, Reiff faced blue mold in his late plantings, but after spraying, “it’s history,” he said.

There was almost too much rain this season for the low-lying fields, but the abundant rain saved the plants from heat stress and has given way to excellent curing weather, he said. The precipitation also kept insects in check.

Thanks to the rain, Reiff is also seeing towering 7-foot-tall plants with 4-foot tiers. He doubts he will hang all of the longest leaves. Lancaster County barns are not built to dry tobacco of that size, he said.

Jake Stoltzfus of Leola described this year’s product as “a real good crop,” but “not as good as last year, I don’t think.”

His first two plantings looked nice, though his third showed a little blue mold. He topped the third planting last week. Topping redirects energy that would have gone to the bloom to promote greater growth of the leaves.

Stoltzfus’ fourth planting got in late because of rain. He said he was concerned the crop would not make it to harvest because the plants were small. The planting was also hit with blue mold, though that seems to have subsided.

After he added nitrogen, Stotzfus’ fourth planting is finally getting bigger and greener. He has not topped the plants yet, but he hopes to harvest the crop if he can beat the frost.

John Beiler of Lititz is further along in his harvest. He topped his late tobacco two weeks ago. Beiler is 80 percent done with harvesting, having only two acres to go out of his 10. He planted an acre of Pennsylvania 41 and put the rest in burley varieties, including Tennessee 90 and Kentucky 14xL8.

Beiler agreed with other farmers that the tobacco looks “good to excellent.”

Jeff Stoltzfus, an adult agriculture instructor at Garden Spot High School in New Holland, said he has heard of blue mold and rust problems this year, but “all in all, I think farmers are pretty happy with the crop thus far.”

Pennsylvania burley growers have had an easier time than growers in other parts of the country.

Will Snell, a University of Kentucky agriculture economist, told KyForward that he had expected farmers in his famous tobacco state to add up to 4,000 acres of burley in 2013, but well-above-average rainfall kept farmers from significantly expanding their acreage and has persisted throughout the growing season.

Kentucky as a whole has had only a slight increase in burley plantings, while Tennessee lost 3,000 acres, Snell said.

Virginia, which mostly grows flue-cured tobacco, cut burley acreage by a third this year, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

USDA statistics show Pennsylvania burley production remained fairly stable, between 4,000 and 5,000 acres, between 2006 and 2012.

Mid-Atlantic farmers were able to break into the burley market in 2005 after the repeal of the New Deal quota system that had placed geographic limits on tobacco farming.

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