Recent rains may cost Kentucky burley tobacco growers a fourth of their crop, according to University of Kentucky extension specialists.
In the last week, UK tobacco specialist Bob Pearce has been fielding calls from farmers and agents looking at fields of wilted tobacco, many in "crisis mode," he said.
"It's been a pretty disheartening few days for people in the tobacco business," Pearce said Wednesday. "The rain over July 4 holiday saturated a lot of fields."
Because tobacco is native to arid lands, the plant's roots will die off in wet ground, so that when it stops raining, plants will wilt because they can't take up enough water anymore.
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"A lot of tobacco is just flopping," said Gary Palmer, UK assistant director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Administration. "And if it sits in water for more than 12 hours, it's a goner."
Pearce said some fields are bouncing back. "The question now becomes how much yield will they make given this setback," Pearce said.
Based on reports of widespread damage he's heard of from around the state, Pearce has made a preliminary estimate that there is a potential loss of 25 percent.
Some fields will recover but not all, and even those that do will not totally recover, he said. In Central Kentucky, Madison and Lincoln counties have been impacted, with Metcalfe, Green and Adair counties especially hard hit, he said.
But the worst may not be over: in a week or so, disease may hit. And a lot is riding on the weather in the next few weeks.
"On tobacco, black shank is starting to flare up," said Kenny Seebold, UK plant disease specialist. "It may be the end of the week, or next week before we see how much disease explodes."
And then there is the rest of the summer to get through: more rain would be bad, but so would a drought.
"It could go either way," Pearce said. "The chances of it being worse are probably more realistic than of it getting better."