North Carolina tobacco growers are experiencing a 1-2 punch from COVID-19 – both in market demand and production. While tobacco isn’t a food crop, it does play an important role on many family farms and to NC’s farm economy – especially in rural areas. NC State Extension is working with growers to connect the dots in this unusual planting season.
While tobacco acreage is down, it is still NC’s number three cash crop at $441MM annual production value, supporting 1,500 families in the state. It’s often also just one crop in a farmer’s rotation including corn, soybeans, and small grains, as well as livestock. The main market for tobacco has shifted overseas with China purchasing the lion’s share of the NC crop. Trade wars since 2017 have weakened that demand. The recent Phase I trade agreement with China included language about tobacco buying, which signaled a bright spot but has now been clouded with uncertainty from COVID-19. Growers are making tough decisions.
“Cotton and tobacco futures have taken a hit in the stock market. We are re-evaluating our crop plan trying to make sure it meets our rotation needs, production goals, and market opportunities,” Matt Drake, a tobacco grower from Edgecombe County, said. “If futures stay below the cost of production we’ll have to decide if we want to change to other row crops because of cost. I’m trying to follow the financial markets close enough to know how best to situate our farm.”
Will There Be Enough?
The virus’s impact extends beyond foreign demand. “Farmers are concerned about the availability of labor and inputs. While the US Consulate in Mexico recently announced they will be bringing in foreign agriculture workers on H2 visas, the question is whether or not they will come. Farmers are worried about attracting healthy workers and concerned about whether visa holders will stay away because of the higher infection rate in the US. “It’s a two-way street of anxiety,” Vann said.
“Temporary ag workers are the backbone of our company – many of them have been with us for 10 years or longer. I see them every day for 8-10 months a year and I love them like family. Most of our workers came back in late February prior to the transplant season. We’re having weekly conversations about good hygiene – to look out for each other and keep everyone safe. We care about the people who work with us, without them, we can’t operate a farm,” Drake said.
“The other main concern is if we’ll be able to get inputs like fertilizers and pesticides that come either fully or in part from outside the US. All indications point toward an ample supply, but it’s something we’re watching,” Vann noted.
University Readies Extension Response
Most growers are moving forward and will be transplanting in the next few weeks. NC Extension is retooling to support them. “Normally, growers bring transplant trays to the Pest Disease and Insect Control Center (PDIC) for troubleshooting. But the PDIC is closed. So I’ve been leaving a truck off-campus for growers to drop off trays for me to inspect. It’s a unique way to do it, but necessary,” Vann said.
The annual Tobacco Extension Field Day is usually held during July in Kinston. It is canceled for now. NC State has recently granted limited exemptions for field research and includes tobacco. It appears that we will be able to plant many of our tobacco test plots. “NC State has the only public flue-cured tobacco breeder in the country and one of just a few agronomy programs nationwide. So we need to keep things moving,” Vann commented.
The annual field day may be held virtually this year, as the small grains group did recently. “We were fortunate to have completed all of our winter meetings before closures started., Those meetings are recorded and uploaded to county extension offices for anyone who was unable to attend,” Vann noted.
In the meantime, Vann and the team are reaching out to manufacturers and dealers to evaluate input supplies and assess alternatives. “We want to be ready with guidance to our growers on application rates and timing of any alternative products if shortages do appear,” Vann said.
This information is shared through the Tobacco Extension portal as well as training to county agents. “This chain of information flow is critical, so farmers have a local contact and avoid bottlenecked communications with one university person,” Vann said. “We’re one of the first crops to be planted. So there is a lot to be ironed out and a lot of folks watching how growers and Extension work through this. But we will. We always do – together.”
NC Tobacco is a Partnership
The close connection among the university, NC Extension, and farmers was on display at the January Tobacco Workers Conference where NC State faculty, county extension agents, and students represented 20 of the total 32 agronomic presentations given at the event. “It was a real team effort,” Vann said. There was even a student-led session on organic production – an important topic for organic growers and their crop rotation.
“We’re fortunate to farm in a state where Extension is so knowledgable. I can call anyone to get information or to find a contact for the information I need. It’s a true network of professionals that help with hands-on learning,” Drake said.
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