The burgeoning demand for dark tobacco in this country has caught the attention of growers across the South. Although there is no guarantee manufacturers are going to look for new production in states that are not traditional dark producers, Extension tobacco workers think they had better be ready with advice on how to grow it if it is ever needed.
North Carolina, for instance, is testing dark air-cured production techniques at four of its research facilities: Laurel Springs in the mountains, Reidsville in the Piedmont and Kinston and Rocky Mount in the Coastal Plain.
“There has been an expansion of demand for dark tobacco and at least a 25 percent or 30 percent increase in acreage this year,” says Loren Fisher, North Carolina State University Extension tobacco specialist, at a stop on the state's recent tobacco tour. “It could be attractive to our farmers: The yield of this type is good, and the price per pound is higher than either flue-cured or burley.”
There has been no response from the industry yet on whether it is interested in dark tobacco from North Carolina, Fisher says. “But in case there is, I think we need some information to see if we can grow it and cure it here and whether it would be economical.”
Through July 22, when the tour stopped at the research station in Rocky Mount, the dark appeared quite robust. “I have been told by visitors who work in dark tobacco that ours looks typical,” says Fisher. “They think the yields will be good.”
Harvest had just started at Rocky Mount and had started the week before in Kinston.
Fisher designed the production practices for experimental dark following Extension recommendations in Kentucky and Tennessee. (The other traditional dark tobacco state is Virginia). Research station personnel grew plants in greenhouses using the varieties Kentucky 171, Virginia 359 and Narrow Leaf Madole. They transplanted the dark just as they would flue-cured and burley, and generally followed a similar production program, except that the dark is topped low — 15 to 16 leaves — to create large, wide tip leaves.
When it is ripe, the North Carolina researchers cut the dark at ground level with a hatchet, then notch it and hang it on wire frames in a shed to cure.
“I think the curing season will be much like burley,” says Fisher. “The curing structures are also very similar, since they are both air-cured. We have not yet looked at curing dark tobacco with fire. That would be a considerably different situation than what we have here.”
Dark air-cured and burley could complement each other on individual farms. “A farmer could manage the dark to come off first, then move to the burley, extending the harvest season,” says Fisher.
That in effect occurred at the research station in Kinston, N.C., where dark tobacco was cut the week of July 17 and burley was harvested the next week.
Soil types may be a limiting factor in the future.
“It is traditionally grown on heavier soils, but with the right management, I think we could grow it anywhere,” says Fisher.
Some dark tobacco was actually grown on farms in North Carolina this season, says Fisher. A smattering of North Carolina farmers were able to obtain contracts from manufacturers to grow dark, including at least five in Rockingham County and one in Pitt County.
It wasn't the only non-traditional area to see some dark plantings this year. Danny Peek, Virginia Tech University Extension burley agronomist, said that two southwest Virginia farmers in the southwest part of the state — the traditional burley-growing area — grew dark fire-cured tobacco this year on an experimental basis. The scale was small: The two farmers together had just under two acres, but there is considerable optimism about the test, since conditions in this area are believed to be well suited for dark tobacco. Dark fire-cured has historically been grown in southeast Virginia but not in the southwest.
While dark plantings were small in eastern North Carolina this season, flue-cured plantings were definitely up. In Wilson County, Extension agent Norman Harrell says farmers planted 9,000 acres of flue-cured, up 7 percent from 2007, along with 100 acres of burley and two acres of dark. Art Bradley, Edgecombe County Extension agent, says his growers had planted 7,300 acres this year, almost a 20-percent increase. There was also a small amount of burley.