Kentucky's tobacco crop withstands worst of the drought

jwarren@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2012 

  • Contest for cutters

    Speed and skill in tobacco cutting have long been prized on Kentucky farms, and they still are. Garrard County has held a tobacco-cutting contest for more than 30 years. This year, it's scheduled for Sept. 6. For more information, go to the county's Web site, Garrardcounty.ky.gov.

MIDWAY — Conrado Olvera, armed with a tomahawk and a spear, moved in a decades-old rhythm.

Lean forward, cut down a stalk of burley tobacco with one sharp swing of the tobacco knife; skewer the stalk on a tobacco stick, being careful to avoid the needle-sharp metal tip; reach for the next stalk. Keep up the rhythm stick by stick, row by row, hour after hour, until the job is done.

This annual farm ritual is being played out again in Kentucky tobacco fields, as farm workers like Olvera get down to the laborious job of cutting and housing the state's burley crop.

It has been a long, hot and dry summer on Kentucky farms, but tobacco generally has fared better than corn and some other crops. Dry weather, however, is continuing. And burley experts say tobacco that hasn't been irrigated might need one more good rain to assure a profitable year.

"It's terribly hard work," Olvera, 32, said Wednesday as he and four companions cut tobacco in an eight-acre field on Rick Horn's farm in Woodford County. "Sometimes it's wet and cold in the morning, and then you're out in the hot sun in the afternoon. But I like it."

Horn is fortunate in that he has been able to irrigate most of his crop, and he's generally happy with it — at least for now. He's raising 100 acres of tobacco this year, and he figures it will be early October before he gets all of it safely in the barn for curing. A lot of work lies ahead.

"We're now cutting early tobacco that we planted in early April," he said Wednesday while Olvera and the other workers took a lunch break. "We irrigated a lot of it, which was exhausting work. But it seems to be a pretty good crop."

Roger Quarles, president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, said Kentucky's tobacco crop narrowly escaped disaster during the dry weather this summer.

"It went to the brink of disaster, ... and then it rained," he said. "Other than tobacco that was irrigated, many acres probably would never have been harvested this year if it had not rained. Tobacco has come back stunningly well."

But growers aren't out of the woods yet. Unfortunately, Quarles saod, the weather has turned dry again, once more putting the crop in doubt.

"We desperately need some rain right now to put more weight in the crop and put some moisture in the leaf, which would contribute to the curing process," he said. "We wouldn't need a huge amount of rain. Just another inch or so over a wide area would help tremendously."

Proper curing is as important as housing in producing quality tobacco. Will Snell, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky, also said a little more rain would help set up the crop for curing.

"Tobacco is a dry-weather crop," he said. "The best thing is to kind of get it off to a dry start, because that helps roots get established. But we do need some rain now. We've been getting some, but it's spotty."

As recently as the late 1990s, tobacco was Kentucky's biggest crash crop. Its importance faded, however, after the federal tobacco support program ended about 2005. By some estimates, the number of Kentucky farms producing tobacco fell from about 25,000 to about 8,000. But tobacco remains a key crop for thousands of Kentuckians.

Bob Pearce, a tobacco specialist with the UK Extension Service, said people today are sometimes surprised to learn that tobacco is still grown in Kentucky.

"Tobacco was the number-one agricultural enterprise in the state for many years, and it's still a pretty big deal," Pearce said.

Snell said that with some luck and favorable weather, Kentucky could sell about $350 million worth of tobacco this year.

Which is why so many people, including Roger Quarles, Rick Horn and Conrad Olvera, are working hard and hoping for a little more rain.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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