The flue-cured growers of Virginia and the North Carolina Piedmont appear headed for a good or possibly excellent finish if they take pains to bring a ripe crop to market.

David Reed, Virginia Extension tobacco specialist, says this is not a year to sell any green tobacco. That’s because buyers will likely discriminate against unripe leaf in the new free market.

Patience in harvesting will be the key. The threat of frost or severe storms sometimes makes growers in this area, the northern end of the flue-cured belt, a bit nervous about delaying pulling.

"Fortunately this crop isn’t over-fertilized, which would delay ripening," says Reed. "But still it is going to be a late growing season. It started off cool in the spring and grew off so slow.

"There is a lot of pressure at this time of year to finish up. You want to keep your barns full, and you would like to send the labor home.

"But don’t do it. Just wait on your tobacco and don’t pull it unripe."

Grower Jimmy Crews of Oxford N.C., says this year ripeness is being emphasized more than ever on his farm. "Anything we pull needs to be dead ripe," he says. "The manufacturers would rather have over-ripe leaf than immature leaf."

The contract system may lessen the harvest-time squeeze a little, Reed says.

"It is more efficient. A farmer can schedule delivery, and he doesn’t have to wait for floor time. And receiving stations will probably stay open longer most years than warehouses did in years past."

He estimates that 90 percent of the Virginia flue-cured crop is contracted with a company. Much of the rest would be contracted with the cooperative.

There has been some industry feedback that there may be a demand for tip grades this year, but Reed is not sure if many will be produced in the Old Belt.

"A lot of our tobacco is big, and it will not have the small leaves at the top of the stalk that make true tips," he says.

But Crews says he may well have some. Part of his tobacco land can’t be reached with water.

"Some of our crop that wasn’t irrigated won’t get very big at the top," he says. "Small tip leaves are what some of the companies want. They have more of the traditional tip characteristics."

There were some hot, dry periods in the Piedmont this season, and farmers learned a lesson about irrigation. "Those that considered the cost of irrigation carefully found they could irrigate precisely, not excessively, and realize some savings," says Reed.

That was Crews’ experience. "As expensive as fuel and labor are now, you really have to pay attention to what you spend on irrigation," he says. "You need to manage it a whole lot better than in the past. If you are watering and it starts running off the soil, you have to turn it off."

The critical time for water is at topping, Crews says, so he tried not to irrigate any of it until then. He has two irrigation systems: The one he uses most involves two reel-type traveling guns. He also has a stationery system with big guns on some land.

"What we couldn’t water has suffered," Crews says. "We probably lost eight leaves on the bottom. But if it would start raining now, it will probably turn out all right. If the upper stalk turns out well, it might make up for losing the lower stalk.">p> Crews is growing 80 acres this year, all for Santa Fe and all with reduced use of chemicals.

Through mid-August, Virginia appeared to have very good crop, says Reed. "That also applies to the dark tobacco and burley that we grow here," he adds. "All three types seem to have above average yield and potential for good quality."

He estimated that flue-cured growers had planted 15,000 acres for harvest, down from 20,000 acres in 2004 and that there are about 9 million pounds of 2004 carryover. He pegs burley plantings in the Piedmont at between 650 and 700 acres, up from just a few acres in 2004, and dark tobacco at 600 acres.

Flue-cured harvest was well under way in mid-August, while burley harvesting in the Virginia Piedmont had just started.

Reed says that hay barns and machinery sheds that farmers fitted with two tiers of poles have been the most frequent choices for curing burley in the Virginia Piedmont. A few old flue-cured stick curing barns have been adapted for burley. There are very few of the wooden outdoor curing structures that have been popular in southwest Virginia.