LOUISVILLE — Having endured a drought-plagued season last fall, Kentucky's burley tobacco farmers hope to be rewarded for their resilience in sticking with the embattled crop — a lynchpin of the region's farm economy until smoking bans, health concerns and social stigma took a toll.
Tobacco experts are upbeat about prospects for a spike in burley prices in the marketing season getting under way, thanks in part to favorable curing conditions that should make the leaf more appealing to cigarette producers.
Ideally, the post-harvest curing process changes long green burley tobacco leaves to a dark reddish brown tint desired by buyers.
After a rainy spring that pushed back the planting season, followed by a summer dry spell, weather conditions have generally cooperated with farmers during the crucial late-summer and fall curing season.
"This is a crop deserving of a profit," said Bob Pearce, a University of Kentucky extension tobacco specialist.
A crop-reporting service said recently that the condition of Kentucky burley being readied for market was 10 percent excellent, 64 percent good, 22 percent fair, and 4 percent poor or very poor.
Kentucky leads the nation in burley production, and Pearce ranks this year's crop as the highest quality in the past three or four years. He said farmers are benefiting from a curing season that's been "about as good as we can expect."
It's a big turnaround from last autumn, when a prolonged drought — combined with hot temperatures — caused much of the burley crop to dry too fast in barns. That left much of the leaf with an undesired light tan color.
As a result, market prices generally fell and a portion of the crop grown under contract was rejected outright by the tobacco companies.
Will Snell, a UK agricultural economist, predicts U.S. burley prices for this year's crop will bounce back to the $1.70 per-pound range. Prices for the 2010 crop averaged about $1.50 per pound, he said.
The decline in U.S. cigarette sales slowed in 2011, which could boost domestic demand for burley, Snell said. U.S. burley exports also stabilized this year as a result of a weak U.S. dollar and limited inventories of quality leaf, he said.
Burley production in Kentucky is forecast at 128 million pounds, down 9 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Per-acre yield is projected at 2,000 pounds, up slightly from a year ago.
The condition of Kentucky's burley depends partly on when it was planted. Earlier-planted burley put on more weight that will pay dividends at market. Steady spring rains delayed planting for some, and much of the later-planted leaf didn't put on as many pounds.
Shelby County farmer Doug Langley eked out a profit from his burley last year despite the worst curing season he'd seen since the early 1980s. He expects higher prices in the next round of marketing, but said this year's crop won't carry as much weight due to the dry summer.
"It should be profitable, but it's not a landslide victory," he said.