Thanks to vigorous encouragement from buyers, tobacco farmers were planning to increase plantings over last season when USDA conducted its Prospective Plantings survey in March.

Acreage projections for all but one of the major types will be higher in 2013, the farmers told the USDA surveyors.

The report — issued March 28 — estimated plantings of all tobacco at 349,630 acres, up four percent from 2012.

Among the individual types:

• Flue-cured tobacco, at 218,000 acres, was projected up six percent;

• Burley tobacco, at 103,100 acres, was projected up two percent;

• Cigar types are estimated at 4,850 acres, up nine percent;

• Fire-cured tobacco, at 16,680 acres, is up two percent;

• Dark air-cured tobacco, at 5,000 acres, is down four percent, making it the only major type to fall below 2012.

As always, there was some skepticism about the projections. But Pat Raines, a burley grower from Seaman, Ohio, who is president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, told Southeast Farm Press that the burley numbers were “right on target” for estimates for the states his cooperative does business in.

“Here in Ohio, acreage is going to be up,” he said. “Central Kentucky should be about the same, while western Kentucky will be down some.”

Tennessee and Virginia, according to USDA, will be down substantially, 12 percent and 30 percent respectively.

But those estimates did not go unchallenged.Paul Denton, Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist, said the 12 percent decline isn't likely to hold up. "I think by the time we finish planting, we will have crept back close to last year's acreage," he said.

Danny Peek, Virginia Extension burley specialist, said,"I can't believe our acreage in Virginia will be down that much. I was expecting a seven to 10 percent increase!"

However much is grown, Raines said, the market picture for this crop is bright, especially on the world market.

“Burley export prospects are very, very good,” he said. “I think it is better than it has been in years.”

Good export outlook

The export outlook for flue-cured is very good too, said the leader of the association that promotes flue-cured exports.

“Now is an optimistic time in world demand for U.S. tobacco,” said Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates.

“There is a shortage of flavor tobaccos at a time when there is fairly consistent demand,” he said. “I expect this situation to last for some time.”

The growth potential for U.S. flue-cured continues to be in Asia. “In China, there is an increasing demand for quality tobacco as the consumer base improves.”

China has not produced the flavor style tobacco it needs for quality cigarettes. “That’s why they turn to us,” he said.

But a retired leaf executive told Southeast Farm Press China could produce good quality flavor tobacco if it had a use for it.

“Tests on small plots proved that in the 1980s,” he said. “The Chinese have just not placed any priority on it. Their demand, then and now, is for a style we would characterize as slick and yellow, which we discourage here in the U.S.”

The Chinese have traditionally been less concerned about the smoking quality of their cigarettes and more with their appearance.

“They believe the sign of quality is golden yellow tobacco visible from the end of the cigarette,” he said. “Perhaps a different trend may emerge, but so far there isn't any significant demand for our style of flavorful leaf.

The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association has a new executive, said Raines, and he is committed to expanding overseas sales for his members.

"Today's tobacco farming has to be competitive in a global market," said Steve Pratt, who started as the cooperative’s new general manager in April. “I want to work to meet those demands."

Pratt is working out of the cooperative’s headquarters in Lexington, Ky. In the short-term, Pratt’s priority is increasing the number of contracts the cooperative signs with its members for the 2013 crop, he said. 

Pratt comes to the cooperative from the Kentucky Farm Service Agency, where he served as a district director for 17 years. Earlier, Pratt worked for 18 years as a county supervisor with the USDA Rural Development/Farmers Home Administration.
"This selection was a long time in coming, but I feel we have made a good choice," said Raines. "I am proud to have a person in the office with the experience that Steve has working with the farmers and office staff.”

And on the subject of new faces, several Extension and Department of Agriculture tobacco specialists are moving on:

• Paul Denton of Tennessee will retire at the end of May. The timetable for replacing him has not been set, but the replacement will divide his time between Tennessee and Kentucky, as Denton has in recent years.

• Danny Peek of Virginia has been named director of the Virginia Extension Service's Southwest District. Until a new tobacco specialist is hired, Peek, who is now stationed in Abingdon, will perform the responsibilities of both positions.

• Scott Bissette has left the post of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture tobacco marketing specialist and has been named to oversee the North Carolina Forest Service. A new specialist will be appointed, sources within the department say, but a schedule for the appointment process has not been set, and the duties of the position may be revised.

chrisbickers@gmail.com

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