Farmers, meanwhile, fearful that they might not produce average yields, were certain to plant at least a little more acreage than they expected to need.

If they then in fact had a good year, they might produce a lot more than contracted and need a way to market it.

“We saw the opportunity to offer our growers a certain market for their tobacco, while providing U.S. burley customers with a stable supply,” said Green. “Our contracting program is based on fair and consistent treatment of growers and results in high quality, clean burley tobacco that is produced using good agricultural practices.”

The Tennessee-based cooperative contracted with more than 1,000 growers to produce 15 million pounds of burley this year.

BSC held its annual meeting in September in Springfield, and members of the cooperative learned that burley yields in the region need to improve —in a hurry — if the crop is to remain a viable enterprise.

When burley production was deregulated after the 2004 season, agronomists predicted that the average yield across the belt would soon improve. Why? Because a lot of marginal land seemed certain to go out of burley production, and they reasoned, therefore, that the yield per acre on the land left in production would likely increase.

But it hasn’t.

“Trends for burley have been disappointing,” said Kentucky Extension Tobacco Economist Will Snell at the meeting. “The loss of marginal growers hasn’t lead to increased yield.”

It is crucial that solutions be found, because farmers who want to stay in burley over the long-term must find some way to produce more pounds per acre, said Snell. “There is no profit in growing burley tobacco if your yield is below 2,000 pounds per acre.”

But that will mean many unprofitable burley operations in 2011, because the average yield for the season will most likely fall well below a ton per acre.

“I would have thought we would be up to 2,400 or 2,500 pounds per acre by now,” said Snell. “But we have never exceeded 2,200 pounds per acre beltwide.”

In September, USDA projected national burley yield at 1,890 pounds per acre. If that proves correct, production should be about 170 million pounds more or less, which would be roughly nine percent less than in 2010. Acreage was down about eight percent.

On the positive side, the burley crop in the field looked quite good as harvest drew to a close in September, said Paul Denton, Kentucky/Tennessee Extension specialist, who also spoke at the BSC meeting and to Southeast Farm Press in a subsequent interview.

For instance, he revisited burley fields near Greeneville, Tenn., in late September. “This tobacco had not looked promising when I saw it back in mid-August,” he said. “But as it was being harvested, it looked like it might yield 2,400 pounds per acre.” That would be very good for this season.

At the nearby Limestone community of Washington County, Denton found more than the usual amount of tobacco still in the field. “I would say they were a little behind on harvest, with maybe 40 percent still in the field. But they were working hard at cutting and housing on Sept. 27.”

The crop in east Tennessee really benefited from late rains and looked a lot better than it had the month before. “Farmers were beginning to worry about frost and cool curing temperatures for the later crop after the cooler temperatures of the weekend of Oct. 1-2,” Denton said.