FINCHVILLE — For burley tobacco farmers in Kentucky and Tennessee, forecasts for a close-to-average yield are a big relief after sweating through prospects of a paltry harvest as extreme heat and a dry spell stunted the crop's growth for much of the season.
Tobacco showed its toughness after timely rains spurred a late-season spurt for much of the crop. In a matter of weeks, some knee-high burley sprouted to shoulder height. The added weight of the tobacco leaves figures to help fatten paychecks for farmers at markets that open late in the year.
Farmers are just starting to harvest the burley crop, which is used in cigarettes. It's a turnaround that never materialized for much of Kentucky's corn crop, which was irreparably damaged by hot, dry weather.
"In July, when it was 106 degrees, I was really wondering if we would harvest half of this tobacco," farmer Doug Langley said Thursday while his farmhands stacked long sticks of green-leaf burley in a barn near rural Finchville, in Shelby County.
"And then we got some rains. ... The old-timers say just don't give up on a tobacco crop, it'll grow out. And they were exactly right. Just take care of the crop, do the best you can with it and it paid off this year."
Now, Langley is hoping to squeeze a profit from his burley, unlike his corn crop, which he calls his worst ever. Langley, who farms in Shelby, Henry and Spencer counties, predicted half his 3,500-acre corn crop won't produce 50 bushels an acre, which amounts to one-third of his usual corn yield.
Kentucky is the nation's top burley producer. The state's average yield could come in about 2,000 pounds per acre, just below the yearly average, said University of Kentucky tobacco specialist Bob Pearce.
Carol Hinton, the agricultural extension agent in Breckinridge County, said much of the burley was revived by timely rains. She predicted yields slightly above average in the Western Kentucky county.
"The condition of the crop is better than we expected," she said. "Not like the corn crop."
Corn farmers there are bracing for paltry yields that could drop the countywide average to 25 bushels an acre or lower when factoring in fields that were a total loss, Hinton said.
Paul Denton, a tobacco specialist with UK and the University of Tennessee, said the Tennessee crop might be in slightly better shape than in Kentucky. But he said recent flash flooding in the Johnson City area could hurt some of the northeastern Tennessee crop.
But across wide swaths of both states, a burley crop that once seemed on the brink of ruin now could turn out average, Denton said.
"It's not something you usually see headlines about, but it looked like a disaster four weeks ago," he said.
The market outlook for the crop also could be on the upswing.
Worldwide burley production is down and U.S. burley exports are up this year in response to a better 2011 crop and limited world supplies, said UK agricultural economist Will Snell.