It's been cold and wet, hot and wet and just plain wet, and now it's harvest. The 2003 tobacco season in North Carolina has presented several challenging years rolled into one. Growers started the season planting the smallest crop since U.S. Grant smoked cigars in the White House. “Like a superintendent at one of our research stations said, ‘It's pretty good considering’…25 inches of rain since the 1st of May,” says David Smith, North Carolina State University tobacco specialist. “Almost every area has some good and some bad. It's pretty spotty.”

As an escorted caravan of about 50 vehicles wound up a tour of North Carolina tobacco farms and research stations they saw some good and some bad.

Rouse Ivey's farm in eastern North Carolina provides an example of the condition of the crop across North Carolina. “I've got some tobacco that was sand-drowned and I've got some of the best tobacco I've ever made,” said Ivey, who farms with his son John Daniel in Duplin County.

While one field got 7 inches or 8 inches of rain, another just down the road about a mile or two received only 2 inches. That's largely been the difference between how a particular farmer's crop looks.

“It's been tough to manage,” says 72-year-old Joe Lanier of Duplin County, who farms with his son Major. “It's been a lot of extra work and a lot of extra nitrogen.”

Just over the road in Jones County, Clifton Brown “missed some of the rain” and had one of the best fields of tobacco the tour visited.

Intermittent breaks in the rain have given the tobacco a chance to grow, but it's still a mixed bag, Smith says. He's estimating an average yield across the board of about 2,000 pounds per acre. Normally, the average is around 2,200. In the Piedmont region of the state, the flue-cured crop is late. Continued rains would help out that part of the state.

“Most of our problems this year have been weather related,” Smith says. Target spot, Granville wilt and blackshank have come on late and provided additional stress to the crop. The expected onslaught of tomato spotted wilt virus didn't materialize this year after hitting flue-cured country hard last season.

As expected with the excessive rain, there have been a lot of nutrient-type problems. “A month ago, the questions we were getting involved nutrients and the answer to all of them was, ‘yes’ go ahead and apply nutrients,” Smith says.

“Now, we're encouraging farmers to harvest in a timely manner,” Smith says. “There will be some mighty thin tobacco this year,” Smith says.

Wooten sees a buyout “the greatest economic development package for agricultural and rural North Carolina. It would provide the stimulus for a lot of activity. Right now many tobacco growers and quota owners are just standing pat or hanging on waiting for a decision to happen on this buyout.”

Other components, such as maintaining tobacco grown in traditional areas and a safety net similar to other agricultural commodities, would be nice, Wooten says.

“The Senate is much farther along in developing a framework and language to make a buyout happen than the House,” Wooten says. “Non-tobacco state senators seem to have a better understanding of why a tobacco buyout is important. Our main job right now is to try and push the House to get a bill moving, even though it may not be a perfect bill.”

Currently, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., “has the most legs in the House, but changes will have to be made to this bill for it to come out of the House. Our job is to get serious movement in the House.”

Visiting with members of Congress before the Fourth of July break, Wooten says he's still optimistic that a buyout will be passed this year. It must happen this year, however.

After a buyout, fewer growers will grow more acres of tobacco. The price of tobacco will fall, hopefully making U.S.-grown leaf more competitive on the world market, Wooten says. The competitiveness of U.S. tobacco, the financial health of cigarette manufacturers, and lawsuits against manufacturers will be among the factors that determine how much tobacco will be grown.