Md. tobacco growers get mixed bag over summer
Maryland’s tobacco growers enjoyed a “decent growing season” this summer despite difficulties raising and harvesting two new types of tobacco, a University of Maryland Extension agent said.
Growers struggled with the sensitivities of harvesting Connecticut Broadleaf, a new type of tobacco adopted by the state’s small community of 60 to 70 producers, said Ben Beale, an Extension agent in St. Mary’s County. The state’s tobacco farmers were left stranded without contracts after Philip Morris USA announced in February it would no longer purchase burley tobacco in the state.
Several tobacco companies quickly snapped up local growers to raise Maryland 609 — familiar to most of them — and broadleaf, which is used as cigar wrapping. Wrapper leaf must be blemish-free when it reaches buyers, but growers can be paid a premium for raising it.
“The growing habit of the plant has really broad, drooping leaves that hang really low to the ground, and so when you cut the crop, you have to take extra care not to injure those leaves,” Beale said.
Of the state’s roughly 800 acres of remaining tobacco production, Beale estimated between 200 and 300 were broadleaf. Most of the acreage was Maryland 609. Local producers grew 609 until the state’s tobacco buyout in 2000, and those who remained switched over to burley.
It was a cautious first step into broadleaf production, which has moved south in recent years from Connecticut to Pennsylvania and Virginia. Several growers said they were initially unsure it could be raised in Maryland, but Beale said it looks like it could stick as a crop for growers in the future.
Jerry Spence, a farmer in St. Mary’s County, said he’s waiting to see what he’s paid before resigning with Lancaster Leaf, a company that picked up some of Philip Morris USA’s customers. Maryland growers are expected to average between $3 and $3.50 per pound this year.
“The crop is probably going to be fair,” he said. “There’s going to be some high-quality crop out there, and there is going to be some crop that’s poor.”
Frogeye leaf spot was a particular problem for Spence. He blamed it on a spraying mistake.
“Some of my leaves have it on it,” he said. “They’re probably not going to be wrapper leaves. … I’m unsure personally how much of my tobacco will make the wrapper grade. My guess is between 10 and 30 percent.”
Labor continues to be the biggest challenge for growers in the region, Spence said, especially with broadleaf and 609, which are more demanding crops. Spraying burley, for instance, could be sprayed liberally across the crop and took Spence about 30 minutes per acre. Working with a backpack sprayer, broadleaf required 10 to 12 “miserable” hours per acre, he said. (He raised about 2 acres of broadleaf.) During sucker control, the crop requires precise contact with the plant.
“It was very difficult to harvest the crop,” he said. “It took everyone longer than they thought it would take.”
Growers have hung their crop in barns and will begin stripping at the end of October.
“Let’s hope (the market) stays strong in the next year, and there will be plenty of demand for the crop,” Beale said.