The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released their latest crop production report on Sept. 11, and it showed a slump in this year’s tobacco production.
According to the report, Kentucky’s burley tobacco production is forecast at 61.2 million pounds this year, down 22% from last year’s total of 77.9 million pounds; dark fire-cured tobacco is forecast at 23.2 million pounds this year, a 16% decrease from last year’s total of 27.55 million pounds; and dark air-cured tobacco production is forecast at 14.7 million pounds this year, decreasing 18% from last year’s total of 17.94 million pounds.
Altogether, the report states that this year’s tobacco production is forecast at 99.12 million pounds, a decrease of 21.8% from last year’s production of 123.39 million pounds, and this large percentage drop is hitting Kentucky’s farmers in their wallets.
One such farmer is 57-year-old Keith Riney of Owensboro, a fourth-generation farmer who has helped harvest tobacco with his dad since he was 5 years old and grown it on his own since age 15.
Riney began planting this year’s tobacco crop at the beginning of March and transplanted around May 10. However, due to the excessive rainfall, he said it made it a difficult year to produce tobacco. The standing water forced him to cut down his planned tobacco acreage from 55 to 30. Even after cutting back, it still destroyed some of those acres, which he had to cut later than normal in August.
“I’ve had 25 or 26 inches of rain at my house (during) July and August alone,” He said.
But the rainfall wasn’t the only decider that caused Riney to cut back on tobacco.
He said the company that he’s growing for, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., wanted less of his product and cut Riney’s dark tobacco production by 50% because they didn’t need as much.
Riney cut his own burley production by 40%. He said the prices haven’t been able to keep up with the input and labor, which has thinned the profit margin, and he was producing other vegetables and grains that required his time.
“If you look at the price of land and vehicles and tractors and insurance and other things, and what they have gone up, obviously, (tobacco) hasn’t kept in line with everything else,” Riney said.
These prices stayed stagnant ever since the crop was booming during the 1980s and prices of burley reached a selling price of $1.94 per pound. Forty years later, it sales now between $2 to $2.04 per pound, that is, if it’s good quality, he said.
With tobacco production on the downturn, Riney said it still has a future of being a sustainable crop, but that depends on the companies’ needs for it and the crop’s profit margin.
“If a person can make some money at it, there will be some people to grow it, but the average grower is getting to be up in years, and most of them are looking to find other ways to sustain themselves if they can,” Riney said.
But for now, Riney’s completed this season’s harvest, and his crops are now hanging to cure to be later stripped. But when his time farming tobacco under the sun is done, he hopes to pass on the trade to the generation in his family tree.