The warm winter and spring in almost all southern tobacco-growing areas led to an early crop of transplants coming out greenhouses.
That was especially true in the Appalachian ridges and valleys of east Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia where the burley type has traditionally been grown.
David Miller of Abingdon, Va., who produces plants for his own use and also to sell, says his burley plants grew quickly in the two 30x96 foot greenhouses he operates. The crop in the area was at least a week earlier than normal, with the first plants going out to the field on May 5.
Danny Peek, Virginia Extension burley specialist, agrees that plants were earlier than normal this year in Appalachian Virginia, which is in the southwestern corner of the state. “It was warm, and they grew quickly.”
He didn't expect any problems as a result. “We should be okay as long as it doesn’t turn off wet. But if transplanting is held up, we might be looking at a lot of clipping.”
In Tennessee, there was a little more spiral root in the greenhouse than normal because of heat early in the planting season, says Extension specialist Paul Denton. But he expects there will be enough transplants to go around.
Despite the early start, it seemed likely that planting would continue into July.
There certainly was no shortage of plants in the Appalachians, and that worked in favor of farmers who buy their plants instead of growing them. Kenneth Reynolds, a neighbor of Miller's in Abingdon, Va., has used greenhouse plants since 2000, But he has never owned a house himself.
It has never seemed economical to me to have my own,” he says. “I can buy plants cheaper than I can produce them.”
He contracts ahead of time with a local plant producer.
Living with greenhouses
What's the single most important management practice in producing tobacco plants in a greenhouse? Frequent inspection, says Miller.
“You've got to practically live with them,” he says. “We inspect ours five to 10 times a day.”
In Tennessee, Shawn Light of Rogersville looks to produce varieties that will help him spread out harvest. He is planting three varieties this season, and they are all of different maturities.
"We plant KY 14 x L8 early, in sod grounds, and cut it in July,” he says. “KT 206 is later in maturity. We try to cut it in September. Hopefully, we can cut NC 7 somewhere in between. If you plant only one variety, you may have trouble getting it all cut on time."
Denton says that KT 206 along with KT 209 have become very popular in Tennessee, as has its sister variety KT 209. KT 210 and some TN 90 are still significantly planted, and there will still be a lot of KY 14 x L8 on farms where black shank isn't a problem.
The outlook for burley produced in the Appalachians seems pretty good now, says Peek. “Every grower who wanted a contract this year got one. The demand for the kind of tobacco we grow here is pretty good.”
“There has been a shift in preference among cigarette manufacturers in favor of the Appalachian style of leaf,” adds Denton.
There was some fear production in the area might be disrupted when Altria closed its receiving station in Midway, Tenn., near Greeneville. The station handled a large volume of burley.
But Peek says the closing hasn't caused the disruption that was initially feared. Other companies have increased their orders.
R.J. Reynolds took up some of the slack, as the Burley Stabilization Corporation took up much of the rest. A few growers are committed enough to Altria to make the long trip to the company's nearest station, in Danville, Ky.
Blue mold breaks out
There was one bit of bad news from the greenhouse. Blue mold was identified at the end of May in two greenhouses near Oxford, Pa., not far from Lancaster.
The plants from one were destroyed. But plants from the other, which showed fewer lesions but were nevertheless infected, were taken to the field, a development that discouraged the Extension agent in charge of tobacco in the area.
"The farmer took a chance, which is not what we want to see with this disease," says Jeff Graybill, Pennsylvania Extension educator. “But the air movement around these little plants (that have been set) is good, and we can hope the blue mold will dry up.”
There's no reason to think the disease has gone systemic on these plants, he adds.
The blue mold apparently over-wintered in the houses, an accomplishment that was eased by the mild weather. The type grown in the greenhouses was Pennsylvania seedleaf, a “cigar” type now primarily used in chewing tobacco.
Tobacco production in Pennsylvania appears to be up about 10 percent from 2011, to 11,000 acres. Growers there grow four types: burley, Pennsylvania seedleaf and Southern Maryland, along with a small amount of Green River, a dark air-cured type grown mainly in Kentucky.
Plantings of the other three types are roughly equal, says Graybill, although Southern Maryland increased some this season.