The economics of tobacco was a key influence on the growers' decisions to give it a try. “There's potential for an acre of tobacco to produce more profit than 7 acres of high-yield cotton,” said Chad Mohamed, one of six participating farmers in Mississippi.

It's a brilliantly sunny late-May morning, following a couple of days of thunderstorms that halted field work, and Larkin Chapman is going full speed ahead to finish planting his tobacco crop.

Wait a minute: **TOBACCO**??

This is, after all, Humphreys County, Miss., which is a heckuva long way from North Carolina/Virginia/Kentucky tobacco country. Probably no tobacco in this area since early settlers grew it for their own use.

But Chapman and five other Belzoni-area producers (Chad Mohamed, Jimmy Sandifer, John Shelton, Danny Pearson, and Ronnie Roberts) who farm some 12,000 acres of basic Delta crops are growing 180 acres total this season under a contract with a North Carolina company, Vector Group LTD, a subsidiary of the tobacco giant, Liggett and Myers. “Three of us have 40 acres each,” he says. “The others have 20 acres each.”

Why tobacco, a crop for which government quotas are handed down from generation to generation, and which is grown in only a handful of states and on mostly small acreages?

And more to the point, why tobacco nearly a thousand miles from the major production areas and markets?

“The variety we're growing is a genetically modified tobacco that can be grown outside the quota system,” Chapman explains, as he keeps a watchful eye on planting operations. “But because it can cross-pollinate with other tobacco varieties, the company wanted to grow it outside the traditional production areas so that wouldn't be a problem.

“It's classified as a burley tobacco, but we're told that it has been genetically modified to produce a virtually nicotine-free tobacco that will be used to make cigarettes aimed at helping people to cut down or stop smoking. The cigarettes, we're told, will be called Omni-Free, and a marketing campaign will be kicked off next year.”

Cigarettes made with this variety are also supposed to be much less detrimental to a smoker's health, Chapman says. “We're told that 90 percent to 95 percent of a cigarette's carcinogens are nicotine-related, and this variety's supposed to have almost no nicotine.”

OK, given all that: How did six Humphreys County, Miss., producers end up being among the first to grow this new tobacco?

“Because of sweet potatoes,” Chapman says with a grin. “We started growing sweet potatoes a few years ago to try to diversify our operation, spread the risks, and make up for poor prices on other crops. Three of us will have 1,000 acres this year. Our North Carolina sweet potato broker had been approached about lining up some of his good producers to grow the new tobacco, and he contacted us to see if we'd be interested.

“With our good sandy Delta soils, there's no reason we can't grow some of these high-value crops, particularly if it can be done outside the quota system. The deal was that they'd provide the plants and would pay us a contract grower's fee.”

He chuckles. “None of us knew enough about tobacco to know if that was a good deal or not, and nobody was much interested in being the first to jump off the cliff — especially when their budgets showed $1,800 per acre in production costs. The majority of that is for labor; tobacco is a very labor-intensive crop, requiring about 170 man hours per acre from start to finish. After this year as contract growers, if we continue to grow it, we'll sell it to them at $1.50 per pound.

“It's no secret that, with crop prices as they are, there's not a lot of money in farming these days, and we've had some small industries close in the area. So, anything we can do to bring in some more money and employ some people is welcome.”

Tobacco meshes well with a sweet potato operation, Chapman says. “The potato transplanter can be used for tobacco, we've got labor already familiar with the transplanting procedures, and we can use our cotton scouts to check the tobacco for insects and other problems.”

Chapman and another sweet potato grower already had transplanting machines, and the other four tobacco growers bought a machine together. About 40 acres per day can be planted.

Chad Mohamed, who'd already planted his tobacco and stopped by to help with Chapman's planting operations, says the economics of tobacco was a key influence on the growers' decisions to give it a try. “There's potential for an acre of tobacco to produce more profit than 7 acres of high-yield cotton.”

Here's some of the nitty-gritty on growing tobacco:

  • Prior to planting, Telone is applied as a fumigant. It is also used on sweet potatoes (some of the producers used Vapam).
  • Broadcast fertilizer includes 180 units of N, 120 of P, and 240 of K, about the same as for sweet potatoes.
  • After soil is rowed up, about 2 pints of Ridomil fungicide is applied as a precaution against blue mold fungus.
  • Ground was watered preplant in order to provide a moist soil in which to place the transplants to keep the ends from drying out and the plant dying. Irrigation during the season will be with both sprinklers and pipe.
  • Approximately 7,700 plants per acre on 21-inch row spacing.
  • After transplants are in the ground, the crop is cultivated a couple of times.
  • At about 60 days, buds are removed by hand, after which a chemical agent is applied to suppress suckers.
  • Key insect pests are thrips and aphids early and worms later on. Anything that will damage leaves and reduce the crops value needs to be controlled. Orthene and Tracer are the main chemicals.

“We expect to begin harvesting mid- to late August,” Chapman says. “The leaves have to be picked by hand. We'll build drying racks on which to hang the leaves. They'll then be covered with plastic, which has air vent holes, and will remain there five to six weeks, after which we'll take them down, hand strip them, and ship them to North Carolina.”

Agronomists and other specialists from Vector will make frequent visits to check on crop progress and to lend advice and assistance, Chapman says. “They're not just turning us loose on our own; they're very supportive and very helpful.”

And because it's a GMO crop, representatives of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will keep tabs on all phases of the crop.

If all goes well, Chapman says, the growers hope to achieve the 2,000- to 2,500-pound averages that are standard for the east Tennessee/Kentucky producing areas.

Beyond that?

Approximately 4,800 acres of the new tobacco will be grown under contract in Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania this season. Next year, projections are for 9,000 to 10,000 acres, and in three to five years, 20,000 to 25,000 acres.

“If everyone's happy after this trial run, we'd shoot for doubling our acreage next year,” Chapman says. “In three to five years, we could be growing a lot of acres of tobacco.”


e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com