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Rains yield big tobacco crops, but burden growers

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By Laura Clark

This year’s tobacco crop could be a good one for area farmers, if they could just bring it in.

The harvest has been delayed by rainfall–more than 10 inches above normal this year–and some farmers say they are two to three weeks behind schedule.

“Not only are the fields too muddy to get in, if they’re cutting it and it’s standing in the field and we get a rain it could splash mud on it,” said Bryce Roberts, Spencer County’s Agriculture Extension Agent.

“Once tobacco gets mud on it, there’s no getting it off.”

On Austin Newton’s 138-acres straddling Shelby and Spencer counties, even a huge new tobacco barn was full in three days. The barn is 56 feet wide by 300 feet long, and was being filled with tobacco two weeks ago even as the roof was going on.

Unable to cut the wet tobacco, farmers have had to leave it in the field longer, where it has grown too big and created a storage issue. It was designed to hold 80 acres of tobacco, but because the plants are too big, the barn is jam-packed with 75 acres. Top and bottom vents keep the air flowing for curing.

“It’s been a bugger,” said Andy Newton, Austin’s father. “We’re having to rent extra barns. We haven’t hardly put any tobacco up that hasn’t been rained on yet.”

The Newtons have 240 acres in all, and have improvised for space by building temporary outdoor structures, including three scaffolds covered with black plastic that are about 6-feet wide and 200-feet long.

It had rained on the tobacco in the week it’s been hanging, but he said it would have been worse if the plants had been in the ground.

“For the most part, it looks all right,” Austin said. “We’ll see what happens with the frost–if we beat it. We can’t wait for every little shower to pass over. We’ve got to get it done.”

The tobacco hanging on the scaffolding doesn’t have the rich golden-brown color of that hanging in their new barn. These plants still have inner layers of green and yellow.

If a heavy frost got to the plants before they cured all the way, the companies’ farmers contract with wouldn’t buy the crop.

The lack of space also means that the crop will be stripped as quickly as possible. Later, crops will take more time to strip because some plants have huge suckers. Rains washed away the sucker-controlling chemicals.

“The market’s not open yet,” Andy said. “We’d like to take it in as we strip it, but we’re going to have to strip it to make barn room.”

As long as they beat the frost, the Newtons said the crop won’t be a financial loss.

“It’ll be a good crop value wise, but as far as pounds per acre go, it won’t be as good as last year because it’s so wet,” Andy said.

Larry Butler of Spencer County was less optimistic about the quality of the 15 acres his wife Tammy raises.

“I thought we had an excellent crop until the first week of August,” Butler said.

Then the rains came and summer storms brought strong winds that damaged the crop.

“A lot of it had rotted before we even got it out of the field. We’ve not had three good dry days since [August],” he said.

They’ve had to bypass the usually wilting down that happens as tobacco lays cut in the field. Plus the cool September weather made the leaves fragile.

“It’s like an eggshell. It’s breaking every time we try to handle it,” Butler said. “If we hadn’t already had our sticks out in the field, we just would have bush hogged it down.”

Still, Butler and his son Adam count themselves lucky that they haven’t had any of the tobacco get too muddy or rained on between cutting and putting it up. The insurance company has come out to appraise the crop.

Butler said it could be anywhere from a one-third to one-half loss this year, but he won’t know for sure until it’s stripped.

It’s been that kind of season, he said, adding that farmers are having trouble harvesting corn or cutting hay with all the rain. After the rains late in the last week, Butler said he didn’t even want to see his soybean crop, it was probably under water.