The one-two punch of the first free market in 66 years and very poor growing conditions in much of the Tobacco Belt led to a stunning 27 percent reduction in leaf production between 2004 and 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The December U.S. Crop Production Report from the USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service pegged 2005 production at 639.5 million pounds for all types, down from 879.2 million pounds the year before.

Among the two major types, flue-cured production was estimated at 384.4 million pounds, 25.8 percent less than in 2004, and burley at 192.2 million pounds, 34.1 percent less than in 2004. These estimates may be corrected later, but it is clear that last summer's tobacco crop was small to begin with, then took major hits from weather and disease.

Some states were affected more than others: Spotted wilt and heavy rains caused a near catastrophic loss in Georgia, but Kentucky apparently dodged the bullet from a long-running drouth.

With the bitter results of the 2005 season in Georgia coming into focus, what once would have seemed inconceivable may have to be seriously considered: Tobacco growers in there may simply be unable to compete with those of other flue-cured-producing states under the current system.

The reason can be attributed to tomato spotted wilt virus and the higher damage it causes in the Deep South compared to North Carolina and Virginia, says J. Michael Moore, Georgia Extension tobacco specialist.

“Whether we can solve this problem will determine the viability of the Georgia-Florida region in tobacco production in the future,” says Moore. “We have to assume that in any given year we will get 35 percent tomato spotted wilt incidence in plants. Based on our recent experience, we would expect that to translate into around 15 percent yield loss, although that will vary from year to year. I saw some fields with 90 percent yield loss this past season.”

It has been estimated that only about 500 farmers grew tobacco in 2005 in Georgia, down from about 1,000 the year before, Moore says. “Just from the talk that I am hearing, I would expect perhaps a 20 percent reduction in 2006, so that we wind up with 400 growers. To get back to the level of production the industry has expected from this state, all 400 would have to be producing on a very large scale, and I don't see that happening. So I am a little pessimistic about tobacco in Georgia.

“Some growers decided to grow tobacco this season even though they were apprehensive about the prices. They did it because it was a tradition. They may not have understood the full economics. And of course, no one anticipated the high cost of fuel.”

Now, they will have to look very carefully at the prices offered for next season, Moore says. “A value judgment will have to be made. They have nine more buyout checks coming and one more Phase II check. Many may decide to invest what they have rather than gamble on another crop.”

About 17,250 acres were planted in 2005, he says, but at least 2,000 acres were abandoned to tomato spotted wilt or drowning. About 26.2 million pounds were sold from Georgia in 2005, although not all was from the current crop.

“Our 2005 crop was very much reduced in size and quality,” says Moore. “I hope we achieved a yield of 1,600 pounds per acre, but I don't know.”

The USDA estimated a yield of 1,700 pounds per acre and production of 27,200, a 41.7 percent reduction from the year before.

Too much rain at crucial times in the plant's development negatively affected production too.

The season started out wet, Moore says. “The early rainfall, which was accompanied by cold temperatures, delayed the production window. Most of this crop was planted after the first week of April which was later than usual.”

It was very wet at topping time and was very hot in late July. “That heat baked out a lot of the oils in the leaf, frequently causing the leaf to senesce in the field,” says Moore. “It rained again in early August, then another long dry period settled in.”

At one point in the 2005 season, the Kentucky burley crop appeared to be heading for a major shortfall. The prospects have improved, but the size of the crop — now being marketed — is still subject to some debate.

In its most recent production estimate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected a grim picture for burley production in the state. But the state tobacco agronomist says the agency's estimate of 135 million pounds is too low, mainly because more area was planted than the USDA's estimate.

“I think our plantings are around 78,000 acres instead of USDA's estimate of 75,000,” says Gary Palmer, Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist. “Also, I estimate a yield of 1,978 pounds per acre for the state as a whole, which would be up a bit from recent years. USDA estimates an average per-acre yield of 1,800 pounds, but there is no way that could be correct.” If Palmer's planting and yield estimates are correct, the crop would come in at a bit over 150 million pounds. “Early reports from tobacco growers support this estimate,” he says. “Most are reporting more pounds than their contracted amount.”

But the agronomic problems in 2005 that caused USDA to make such a pessimistic projection were certainly real, says Palmer.

This crop did well until the first week of July, when it began to dry out, says Palmer. Hurricane Dennis brought some rain to the western part of the state in mid-July. But from then on it was very dry almost everywhere until the remnants of Hurricane Katrina brought general rains in late August.

“By far our worst problem was drouth and the accompanying high temperatures,” he says. “Our worst disease problem was black shank, along with target spot and frogeye leafspot which were problems late in the season. We have a new chemical, Quadris, that helps control the latter two dramatically. Flea beetles were our most damaging insect, and there were many instances of manganese toxicity.”