LOUISVILLE — This autumn has not been kind to burley tobacco farmers in Kentucky, the nation's top burley-producing state.
With some buyers beginning to make their purchases Tuesday, the season could turn out to be disappointing financially as a dry spell has hurt the quality of some leaf stored for curing before going to market.
Ideally, the post-harvest curing process gradually changes long green burley tobacco leaves to a dark reddish brown amid cycles of dry and moist conditions. This year, the drought — combined with hot temperatures for much of the fall — left some tobacco with an undesired light tan color as the burley dried too fast.
That pigmentation problem, plus average yields, could result in lost income when growers take their crop to market.
"It's not a good picture," said Bob Pearce, a University of Kentucky extension tobacco specialist. "It's pretty murky. A lot of them could be facing at best a break-even, and at worst they could be losing on this crop."
Rain fell in Kentucky on Tuesday, offering some help for producers, but "it's probably going to be too little, too late for a lot of the crop, unfortunately," Pearce said.
In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast leaf production of 185.7 million pounds across burley-producing states, down 14 percent from last year. Kentucky's production is expected to be 136.8 million pounds, 15 percent below 2009.
The period from August to mid-November was one of the driest on record in Kentucky in more than a century, said Tom Priddy, a UK extension agricultural meteorologist, citing preliminary data.
It's the third time since 2007 that Kentucky burley growers have struggled through an autumn dry spell that complicated curing.
The exception was 2009, when farmers had a fairly good crop despite a curing season that was too wet. Tobacco companies snatched up "a good bit" of drought-stressed leaf grown in 2007 and 2008, Pearce said. Whether they'll do the same, and at what price, in coming months is an uncomfortable question hanging over many growers.
"There is some good tobacco out there, I just don't know how much," Pearce said. "There's some poor-quality tobacco out there. It's just how good is that in-between tobacco and whether or not we're going to be able to sell it."
Most burley farmers sell leaf under contracts with tobacco companies. Philip Morris USA, the nation's top cigarette maker, started buying Kentucky burley on Tuesday, said company spokesman Ken Garcia. Companies can reject tobacco that doesn't meet quality specifications.