Eddie Johnson has grown tobacco in Surry County, N.C., for a long time — long enough to be a charter member of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina and well enough to be a former North Carolina and Southeast Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Farmer of the Year.
But, while working on his diversified farm, Johnson smelled the unmistakable scent of 2,4-D.
It wasn’t the unpleasant organophosphate smell that bothered him, it was two greenhouses filled with tender young transplants — the only plants he had for his upcoming tobacco crop.
What Eddie Johnson smelled that February morning was disaster.
His son was spraying 2,4-D on some pasture land adjacent to the greenhouses filled with young tobacco plants.
“I don’t know whether the wind changed, or exactly how it happened, but drift from the 2,4-D was reaching me, and the greenhouses were between me and the sprayer, so I knew we were in trouble,” Johnson says.
Tobacco growers with a fraction of his experience know that 2,4-D and tobacco just don’t mix. “Tobacco plants are so susceptible to 2,4-D you can wave a bag at a tobacco plant, and it’ll fall over dead,” Johnson adds.
However, on that particular morning the mixture of 2,4-D and his float houses, or greenhouses, filled with the future of his next tobacco crop, there was nothing funny about it.
“I didn’t really know what to do,” Johnson recalls.
“My immediate thought was that most of those plants were going to die, unless I did something, but at that point I didn’t really know what that something was going to be,” he adds.
I had worked with Lynn Howard, when he was with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture for a long time, and I called him and told him my situation, Johnson says.
At that time, Lynn had done some work with a new soil amendment called Quick-Sol. Lynn said this material might help the plants better survive the stress of being subjected to 2,4-D.
The individual grow cells that hold the tobacco plants are tiny, and there’s not much soil in them, so I was skeptical a soil amendment would make any difference, Johnson says.
“I wasn’t expecting much, but we saved those two houses of tobacco transplants. I’m confident without the emergency treatment with the new product, we would have lost a majority of those plants,” he adds.
Known to tobacco growers as float houses, these structures can hold enough young tobacco plants to plant 100 acres or more of tobacco.
The transplants float on a shallow bed of water and all the nutrients and crop protection materials are added to the water.
Long-time Virginia Tech Tobacco Specialist David Reed says, “Commercial greenhouse production of tobacco transplants first appeared in Virginia in the mid-1980's and has spread rapidly throughout the Southeast tobacco belt.”
Are advantages to float houses
Reed says there are some distinct advantages of growing tobacco transplants in float house.
• Labor savings — Greenhouse culture greatly reduces the amount of labor necessary for transplant production and eliminates the greatest labor peak before topping;
• Greater control of environmental conditions — Weather conditions have less direct impact on greenhouse culture than normally experienced in plant beds. Greenhouse-grown transplants tend to exhibit much less premature flowering than plant bed transplants;
• Uniform growth — Greenhouse-grown transplants generally exhibit more uniform growth in the field than plant bed transplants. This may have positive benefits in cultivation and topping.
Other than the cost of building and maintaining these facilities, the major downside, Reed says, is the potential for widespread, rapidly developing disease and insect outbreaks is always present.
None of the highly respected tobacco specialist’s concerns about growing tobacco plants in a float house cover exposure to 2,4-D.
Having so many plants in a closely confined structure was high on Johnson’s list of concerns that morning in February.
The old Lyndon Johnson analogy of getting caught in the open in a West Texas hailstorm came to mind — nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and you damn sure don’t have the heavenly connections to make it stop.
Fortunately, Eddie Johnson did have the chemical connections to make the damage stop. From those two houses of tobacco transplants, he planted 70 acres of tobacco and friends and neighbors planted another 35-40 acres.
“In the field, those tobacco transplants performed as well as any I’ve ever planted. We continued treating them with Quick-Sol after transplanting.
“We applied one application immediately after transplanting, another 2-3 weeks after transplanting and another about mid-season,” he says.
The North Carolina grower says he has nothing to compare the treated plants to, since all the tobacco he planted was in those two houses.
“I can’t say whether it helped with yields and quality, because I don’t have anything to compare it to. And, I won’t have a comparison this year, because we treated all our transplants with Quick-Sol when we put them in the float house,” he says.
“What I can say is those plants that were exposed to 2,4-D and treated with the soil amendment had a big root system.
“By the time we got them to the field, some of the plants had grown roots out the bottom of the grow cells and some of the roots hung down 5-6 inches below the cell — that’s real good,” Johnson adds.
In addition to tobacco, Johnson grows grain crops and runs a large, diversified livestock and trucking business.
“Because of our livestock business, we have plenty of manure to use for fertilizer, and we feel like that is a benefit to growing all our crops, including tobacco.
“We have red clay soils, not much flat land, and we need to farm on the contours when we can.
And, up here in northwest North Carolina, weather is always a mitigating factor on crop production,” he says, pointing out some of the many things in addition to the health of his tobacco transplants that can affect yield and quality.
“We grow small grains on our tobacco land, and when we cut the winter crop, we plant corn in June or July and cut that for silage. Then, we come back and plant our tobacco the next spring,” he says.
Labor costs and the high cost of inputs for tobacco, along with the Federal Tobacco Buyout program have forced many growers out of business. Those who remain in tobacco production don’t have much room for error.
“Two greenhouses full of dead transplants would have been a big error,” Johnson says.
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