In their first year out of the government program, Georgia tobacco growers could have used a bumper crop this season. But it was not to be, as problems ranging from excessive rainfall to a severe outbreak of tomato spotted wilt virus have dashed hopes for a banner 2005.

“It has been one thing after another this year,” says J. Michael Moore, University of Georgia Extension tobacco specialist. “Our growers went into this year without a program, and some of them didn't even decide they were going to grow tobacco until late.”

Making last-minute planting decisions works to a disadvantage for Georgia growers, says Moore. “Most Georgia tobacco producers don't grow their own transplants. This is a problem because they depend on someone else to grow their plants, and they couldn't say whether or not they needed plants until they had signed contracts. This meant that greenhouses were seeded late,” he says.

In some cases, he adds, plant beds were seeded late. Then, heavy rainfall compounded the problem, he says.

“When we finally did get plants ready to go to the field, we were delayed until after the first week in April. So we didn't have much of a problem meeting that first item on our list of recommendations for managing your risk to tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), which is waiting until after April 7 to start transplanting. Mother Nature forced us to follow that recommendation,” says Moore.

Many growers were hopeful after transplanting that they'd have a relatively low TSWV year, he says. However, within a couple of weeks, they were seeing significant levels of the disease in their fields.

“Now, we've seen a second peak in the amount of the virus showing up in fields. This seems to coincide with growth spurts and rainfall events. We're now seeing 35 percent of the plants across Georgia showing some symptoms of the virus, from one leaf being affected to the death of the entire plant. We expect that could equal a yield reduction of about 15 percent from TSWV alone,” says Moore.

It's not the worst virus year Georgia growers have seen, but it is a significant loss, he says. The virus has not affected those growers who followed the University of Georgia's recommendations for managing TSWV as severely, he says.

“Those growers who used Admire and Actigard in the greenhouse saw significant reductions early in the season in TSWV. Those who used only Admire also saw a reduction, but it wasn't as significant as when both materials were used.”

Compounding the TSWV problem has been the excessive rainfall seen in most areas of the Georgia tobacco belt, he says. “We've seen a high of 18 inches of rainfall in some areas, with at least 6 to 8 inches consistently across the tobacco production area. That has created additional stress on the plants by suffocating their root systems.

“Following that initial period of heavy rainfall, we saw a period where we didn't get any rain, and temperatures were extremely high. So we had plants that were in poor health with root systems that couldn't support the amount of water being transmitted through the plant. As the plants wilted, the sun scalded them. We have a lot of damaged plants with yellow on the bottoms. The yellowing is an indication that the root system has been damaged. So, you can kick in another 5-percent yield reduction associated with excessive water.”

A few growers, he says, went back and tried to re-fertilize their plants, with some having small enough tobacco to plow it one last time.

Unfortunately, said Moore in late June, all of this has occurred with time still left in the season. “I don't think we'll be that late harvesting this crop because with the limited root systems of these plants, if the weather turns off hot again, the tobacco will come off quickly. This entire season has been about two weeks behind normal as far as transplanting and early season growth. We still don't have a significant number of growers harvesting.”

Georgia tobacco producers also have seen widespread tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) this year, he says. “It appears there is TMV once again associated primarily with the NC-71 variety, which makes up about one-third of Georgia's production. We noticed that after transplanting in a number of locations across the state, we could see mild mottling of the leaves. It's not in every field of NC-71, and it's not in every grower's field where NC-71 transplants came from the same greenhouse.

“There is enough out there that it's a reality. But it doesn't appear that it will cause significant yield reduction or a reduction in quality.”

And as if disease and weather problems weren't enough, Georgia growers also are seeing lower contract prices this year for their tobacco, says Moore.

‘Last year, the average sale price was $1.85 per pound. This year, contract prices are at about $1.40 to $1.45 per pound. Meanwhile, input costs continue to climb, some by as much as 20 percent over last year.”

It's hard to put an exact number on how many acres of tobacco were planted in Georgia this year, he says. The state's agricultural statistics service stated that 19,000 acres were planted while FSA numbers put the figure at 16,280 acres. Either way, it's a significant reduction from last year's 23,500-acre crop, says Moore.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com