Disease, Drought Beset Ga. Growers
TY TY, Ga. (AP) - After enduring a drought and an unusual disease outbreak that devastated some fields, Georgia's flue-cured tobacco growers face many uncertainties as they prepare for Tuesday's market opening.
With cigarette companies besieged by lawsuits, including a record $145 billion award earlier this month in Florida, some growers wonder about the future of the crop, a mainstay of Georgia agriculture.
Last year, the state's gross sales were down 28 percent from 1998. The crop's gross value, about $106 million, was $59.5 million less than in 1998. Only 87 percent of the effective quota was sold at auction.
The season average of $169.67 per hundred pounds was 88 cents lower than in 1998.
Declining cigarette consumption and increased reliance on cheaper imported tobacco has led to a 50 percent cut in the effective quota - the amount growers are allowed to produce - over the past three years. This year could be even worse.
Georgia's quota this year is 70 million pounds, but growers can exceed that to offset their failure to meet last year's auction quota.
J. Michael Moore, a tobacco specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service in Tifton, said growers have lost nearly 1,000 acres because of an unprecedented outbreak of tobacco mosaic virus, a disease that causes leaf damage and makes infected plants worthless.
``We still don't have an answer as to why we have the problem,'' Moore said.
Some fields also have been attacked by tomato spotted wilt virus, a deadly plant disease.
With the disease rampage and a third summer of drought, nearly 50 percent of the crop is rated fair to very poor.
``All in all, it's not shaping up to be a bumper crop year,'' Moore said.
Still, he expects good demand for high-quality, clean tobacco.
``The companies are in a business,'' Moore said. ``They need to buy as cheaply as they can. That has caused them to buy from outside the United States. However, they still need high-quality tobacco with full flavor.''
Georgia tobacco is prized for its high sugar content, which fits well in the blends of foreign tobacco companies, Moore said.
``I think demand will be there when the markets open,'' he said. ``Growers may not see the prices they would like.''
Gary Walker, who grows 61 acres of tobacco near the tiny south Georgia town of Ty Ty, said he has an unusually good crop, all of it under irrigation.
``This is one of the best crops we've had,'' said Walker, who chairs the Georgia Farm Bureau's Tobacco Advisory Committee. ``It looks like a heavy crop. We're just waiting for the markets to open and see if they want to buy this tobacco and pay us a good price.''
Ramsey Pidcock, owner of the Pidcock Tobacco Warehouse in Moultrie, said the drought caused the crop to mature later than usual. Besides running the warehouse, he grows 150 acres of tobacco - half of what he grew three years ago.
Pidcock said growers are worried about spending millions of dollars for mandatory modifications of curing barns to reduce carcinogens known as nitrosamines.
The auction season continues through October.