LUMBERTON — Recent rains have prevented some Robeson County tobacco farmers from harvesting their tobacco fields, and disease within the crops is creating an urgency to get the tobacco out of the field before they lose any more of their crop.
“The farmers are up against it trying to get the crop out of the field as fast as they can with the barn space that they have. They can’t cure it all at one time,” said Mac Malloy, the county field crops agent with the Agricultural Extension Service. “They can only go as fast as their barn space will allow.”
Farmers have seen disease spread through their tobacco fields since early summer because of the large amounts of rain that has also prevented some farmers from getting their tobacco out of the field, according to Malloy.
Malloy said the disease in tobacco is a result of moisture in the ground combined with hot temperatures and it can decrease the quality of the tobacco or in some cases cause the leaves to fall to the ground before it can be harvested.
Tobacco farmers have had to deal with an unusually rainy growing season this year in large part to a very wet August that saw 8.56 inches of rainfall, about 3 inches more than normal, according to the National Weather Service. September has actually been drier than normal, with only 1.57 inches of rain falling compared with the average of 2.95 inches through Sept. 19, but about a third of that rain came on Tuesday.
Miles Mercer, a local farmer, said that all of the rain has put the tobacco harvest behind schedule.
“We certainly had an ample amount of rain this summer and the rain has created more disease problems than normal for the tobacco, and with all of the rainy days we haven’t been able to work in the fields,” Mercer said. “We’re running behind schedule.”
Mercer said that his tobacco is usually harvested by now, but this year, because of all of the rain, it won’t all be out of the field for another two weeks. He said he hopes to have all of his tobacco harvested sometime after the first week of October if the weather cooperates. He estimated that about 10 percent of his crop will be lost to disease.
Roger Oxendine, who has an 8,000-acre farm near Rowland, said last week that only about half of his tobacco was out of the week, and he was hustling to get it to market to escape disease.
Tobacco farmers have to wait until it’s dry to harvest the leaves because if the leaves are wet it will rot during the curing process. There is no significant rain in the local forecast until the end of next week.
“This year it’s been a little more than above average for rainfall levels,” said Michael Colby of the National Weather Service,. “It’s only been about four inches above average so that’s not unheard of, but we have had a good amount of rain this year.”
Malloy said he expects the weather to affect the yield of this year’s crop. But even though the rain has had a negative impact for some tobacco farmers, it has helped others.
“The crops aren’t as good as they could have been, but the rain has led to some good crops,” he said. “You’ve got some good that comes with the bad.”
“The disease coupled with the inability to harvest during these rainy days,” he said. “It will certainly limit my yield this year.”
Mercer said that prices for tobacco have gone up a little from what they’ve been in the past few years because there is more demand this year.
The average price for flue-cured tobacco in August was $5.65 per pound, up from $5.22 in August of 2009, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Even with prices for tobacco up this year, Malloy said many farmers in the area have quit growing tobacco in favor of grains which have seen a large price increase. Malloy said there are about 14 tobacco farmers left in the county, down from 2008 when there were about 40 tobacco farmers in the county.
Some of that is because of the sale of quotas that have combined operations, but smoking is also down in the United States.