Georgia's three winners of the 2000 Philip Morris Award for Excellence in Tobacco Production all agree that tobacco, despite its recent problems, remains their primary and most dependable source of farm income.

The Excellence in Tobacco Production Program identifies and recognizes young flue-cured and burley tobacco farmers who are making outstanding contributions to tobacco and to their community and who consistently produce quality tobacco with the use of their state Extension Service recommendations.

Georgia's 2000 winners include Tommy Farabow, Coffee County; Kevin Moore, Pierce County; and Roger Odom, Berrien County.

"Tobacco is my single main source of income," says Farabow. "I place it on good land and try to rotate it every three years. Whenever I begin a crop, I know how much revenue can be generated from a specific number of acres in an average year.

"However, with the severe quota cuts of the past three years, I find that I'm having to supplement my income by increasing my cotton acreage," says Farabow.

Farabow is the owner and operator of a 568-acre diversified row-crop and cattle farm. In addition to tobacco and cotton, Farabow produces peanuts, corn, hay and rye. His family has been involved in tobacco production for 50 years.

Farabow has a mechanized operation, using greenhouse transplants with a carousel transplanter, a mechanical harvester and box curing barns.

"Greenhouse transplants and a carousel transplanter were incorporated into my tobacco production this year," he says. "This has reduced labor costs by requiring only one person to transplant each row rather than two people per row on a conventional planter. This has cut our labor costs in half."

Greenhouse plants, he adds, flower and mature at the same time, saving the cost of "clean-up" labor. Farabow also uses an even-row combine and fills his boxes in the field.

Quality tobacco must be gathered when it's fully mature and ripe, he notes. "Tobacco should be gathered at least three times by stalk position, and each gathering must be kept and processed separately. The finished or cured product should be a usable form for the manufacturer. It should be free of suckers, stalks, weeds and any foreign materials or black tobacco. It must have body, weight, good color and low MH residues."

Drastic quota cuts along with increased production costs is making it increasingly difficult for tobacco producers, says Farabow. "Now, our barns must be retrofitted with heat exchangers to satisfy the government. The expenses are overwhelming due to the loss of quota, even with help from the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation.

The federal tobacco program, he says, is good for most farmers and is especially useful with its price support system. "However, refinement of the program certainly is needed in specific areas. It's extremely difficult for the American tobacco producer to be competitive in the world market."

Pierce County's Kevin Moore owns and operates more than 500 acres of farmland on which he produces tobacco, corn and cotton. Moore also has a mechanized operation, utilizing box barns and a mechanical harvester.

"The income value of tobacco cannot be realized until you lose a crop. Then, you realize what the value means to the financial health of your operation," says Moore. "When we have a good tobacco crop, it seems as though everything else will turn out right. The money from corn and cotton is just `icing on the cake.'"

Quality tobacco, he says, ripens naturally in the field. "Quality tobacco has a good smell and a good feel to the leaves. When your tobacco has a good, grainy feel, then you know that it's quality tobacco.

"When unloading barns, I always try to watch for any foreign material or tobacco of a lesser quality. If any is seen, it automatically comes out. Good preparation makes the crop look better on the auction floor, and it shows that some people still take pride in the most important crop on the farm," says Moore.

Good production practices begin during the winter months, he says. "Transplant production is very important in getting the crop off to a good start. Fertilizing is very important - not enough is as bad as too much. Timing is very important in sucker control. Also, our tobacco is harvested three to four times because stalk position is important when the crop gets to the auction floor."

Moore lists tomato spotted wilt virus, tobacco mosaic virus and new technologies as top priorities for Extension and research programs.

"We must continue to grow good quality tobacco for our domestic and foreign customers. We must take our exports seriously. Customers do not want inferior tobacco. U.S. growers are doing their best to stay competitive."

Roger Odom is the owner and operator of a diversified row-crop and cattle farm in south Georgia's Berrien County. His more than 400 acres of farmland includes tobacco, corn, peanuts, cotton, squash, cucumbers, cattle and horses.

"Tobacco is the major income crop for my farm operation," says Odom. "Although recent quota reductions have reduced this income, tobacco still is my most dependable crop. With the income generated from tobacco, I'm able to produce row crops and beef cattle, contributing to the supply of food and fiber for Georgia, the United States and the world. My 50 acres of tobacco supports my operation."

Disease problems, he says, limits his tobacco production. "The year 2000 was a bad one for tobacco mosaic virus. Quality and yield both were affected. Good rotation and using resistant varieties can reduce the problem in 2001.

"Research trials using Actiguard plus Admire have shown promising results in the suppression of tomato spotted wilt virus. In two of the last four years, tomato spotted wilt has been a tremendous problem. We had more than a 50-percent incidence in tomato spotted wilt in our 1999 crop."

Blank shank, says Odom, also is a problem. However, he adds, it can be managed with rotation, resistant varieties and chemical applications.

"The most prominent issue facing my productivity is the reduction and availability of quota. Tobacco acres have been on a steep decline since 1997. Being active in grower groups and the farming community gives me the opportunity to have a voice in such matters," he says.

In an effort to produce a more uniform tobacco crop, Odom uses greenhouse plants. "Quality tobacco is clean with good color and texture. Good qualities are acquired through timely fertilization, weed control and timely sucker control applications. Tobacco also should be harvest at the proper stalk position for curing," he says.