Tobacco plants, once a staple of local agriculture and a common part of the landscape during the spring and summer, might be hard to find this growing season.
Burley tobacco is expected to hit a new low this year. The crop has been on the decline nationally and in Kentucky since before the 2004 Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act (also known as the “tobacco buyout”) ended federal tobacco quotas and price supports.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Prospective Plantings report, which was released recently , projects that burley tobacco growers in Kentucky will set 57,000 acres for harvest this year. That’s down 6,000 acres from last year and a far cry from the 1990s, when burley acreages peaked above 200,000 for several years.
Once a smoking-hot cash crop for Kentucky farmers, the burley tobacco business is now going up in smoke.
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“This will be the lowest burley tobacco acreage on record, just below the 58,000 acres harvested in 2015,” said David Knopf, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service regional office in Louisville. “Tobacco buyers are contracting fewer acres, and growing expenses have been increasing more than prices received for burley in recent years.”
Farmers are still looking for a crop that is similarly profitable to tobacco.
David Knopf, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service regional office in Louisville
Health concerns have eaten into the market for tobacco products in the United States. Once a nation of smokers, the U.S. had cigarette-smoking rates nearing 50 percent of adults in the 1950s and 1960s. That number has plummeted to around 18 percent today, leaving farmers sifting through the ashes of a once-profitable commodity.
“Right now, our tobacco farmers are really going to be struggling,” said Mike Bullock, agricultural specialist with Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College. “We have some burley growers whose contracts have not been renewed.”
When buyers such as Phillip Morris end contracts with burley producers, it’s hard for those farmers to find other markets or an alternative crop that comes close to replacing the income from tobacco.
“If a farmer is growing 15 acres of burley, he might make $3,000 an acre profit,” Bullock said. “That’s hard to replace. We have a few switching from burley to dark-fired tobacco. That’s still a decent market, but it’s limited.”
Farmers have turned to growing commodity crops corn, soybeans and wheat on the acreage once reserved for tobacco, but Knopf said those are poor substitutes for burley.
“Farmers are still looking for a crop that is similarly profitable to tobacco,” Knopf said.
The best current option is soybeans. The NASS report bears that out, projecting Kentucky soybean acreage to climb by 50,000 acres this year to about 2 million acres while farmers will plant about 1.3 million acres of corn, down 40,000 acres from 2017.
“Returns on soybeans continue to be the more attractive option for producers compared to corn,” Knopf said.
Some agriculture watchers see hope for the future in a crop that’s barely on the radar now. Industrial hemp has been grown in the state since 2014 under the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program, but acreage dedicated to the versatile crop has grown slowly to last year’s total of 3,200.
Growth of hemp, which can be used in food, clothing, rope and even automobile parts, has been slowed because the federal government still has it on its list of controlled substances.
“That crop has potential, but as long as it remains a regulated crop it may be difficult to grow many more acres,” Knopf said.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to introduce legislation legalizing industrial hemp, and Bullock said it can’t happen soon enough.
“Hemp is still considered experimental, and farmers can’t borrow money to grow it,” he said. “If McConnell introduces the bill, I think it will go through Congress. That will open up some doors, but it will be too late for this growing season.”