It's murky, overcast, threatening rain, and John Shelton, Jimmy Sandifer, and Sam McGuire are keeping an eye on the skies, hoping the front will move on through so they can finish harvesting the first field of Mississippi's 2001 commercial tobacco crop.

Spread out across a dozen or so rows, a crew of workers are busily chopping down the tall, leafy stalks, then spearing them onto wooden poles in preparation for drying.

“We need to let them stay in the field for three to five days,” says Shelton, who was the first of six Humphreys County, Miss., producers to plant tobacco back in May and now is the first to start harvesting. “After the initial drying in the field, we hang it on racks to air dry for five to seven weeks.”

Then, the stalks will be stripped of their leaves, which will be separated as to bottom, middle (the best quality), and top. Using a device similar to a gin press, they'll be pressed into 70- to 80-pound bales and shipped to North Carolina for processing by Vector Group Ltd., which has contracted with growers in Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states to grow this new genetically engineered, near-zero-nicotine tobacco.

Sam McGuire, the Vector agronomist who's been keeping tabs on crops in Mississippi and Louisiana, says he's pleased with the way the season has gone and “I'm very happy with the crop.”

Shelton, Sandifer, and four other area producers (Larkin Chapman, Chad Mohamed, Danny Pearson, and Ronnie Roberts) who farm some 12,000 acres of basic Delta row crops plus sweet potatoes and catfish, are growing 180 acres total for the subsidiary of the tobacco giant, Liggett and Myers.

Shelton and two other growers have 40 acres each, the others 20 each. Another 180 acres is being grown by producers in the Vardaman, Miss., area, and producers in the Oak Grove and Lafayette, La., areas have another 200 or so acres. Approximately 4,800 acres of the new tobacco was grown under contract in Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania this season.

“Because this is a new variety, the company wanted to contract production in areas where there is no other tobacco to avoid any risk of cross pollination, and they wanted it to be grown in states where there are no tobacco quotas,” Shelton says.

The Mississippi growers were selected because they are successful sweet potato growers and the transplanting machines can be used for both crops.

Shelton says he started growing sweet potatoes to try and gain some diversity in cropping and to stabilize revenue.

“For a while, I was out of row crops altogether. My cotton land is rented out to a good grower. I've got 1,200 acres of catfish ponds, but fish prices are like a yo-yo, up and down all the time. So, I put in 170 acres of sweet potatoes, and that has worked well. This year, we put in a packing line so we can pack our own sweet potatoes. And I've got four acres of pumpkins.

“We've got really good soils in this area, and we can grow just about anything, so we decided to take a chance on tobacco. Overall, I've been pleased with it. We've made some mistakes and we've had to contend with a learning curve, but the Vector agronomists have done an excellent job of hand-holding. They've done everything they said they'd do and have been a great help to us. Every time we called on them, they were there.

“We think we've turned out a pretty good crop, and the Vector people seem pleased with it. We're looking forward to growing it again next year and, if possible, increasing the acreage.”

Shelton began planting his 40 acres May 8 and started harvesting Aug. 8.

“We sprayed three or four times for worms, but they weren't very bad and we had no control problems.” The crop was irrigated four times with a center pivot rig. “It's important that there be adequate moisture within 36 hours after planting, or you risk losing plants.”

The major requirement for producing tobacco is labor. “You can easily spend $1,000 per acre in labor alone,” says John Shelton, one of several Mississippi farmers producing the crop this year under contract to Vector Group Ltd.

A soil fumigant was applied before planting and fertilization was much the same as for sweet potatoes — 180 units of N, 120 of P, and 240 of K. A preplant fungicide application was made for control of blue mold fungus. Plants were on 21-inch row spacing, with about 7,700 plants per acre. Command was used for weed control.

The major requirement for the crop, Shelton notes, is labor. “It's very labor-intensive, and it's important to have that labor lined up at the time it's needed.” Although he was able to use some local labor during the season, he is contracting with a Georgia-based crew of Latino workers for harvesting operations.

Chemicals can be applied to suppress suckering, and formation of flowers, in order to direct more energy into growing leaves on the main stalk, but both processes still require considerable hand labor.

“You can very easily spend $1,000 per acre in labor alone,” Shelton says. He estimates area growers will have about $1,800 to $2,000 per acre in this year's crop. “We're told normally it should run $1,500 or so.

“But we've had some costs associated with learning and training workers that more experienced growers wouldn't have. We've all learned from our mistakes, and we'll be more efficient next time around.”

In the harvesting operations now under way, workers first chop down plants with a cleaver-like blade. Other workers then come behind and “spear” the plants, splitting the stalks and sliding them onto poles.

“An experienced spear worker can do 700 to 800 sticks per day,” Shelton says. “We're probably averaging 400 to 450 right now, but that should pick up as the workers become more familiar with what they're doing. Most of the crew has been working in cotton gins and with vegetables, so they've had to learn what's needed for tobacco.”

After a few days of field drying, the poles are fitted onto elevated racks for completion of drying. If rain threatens, they are covered with plastic.

Shelton hopes to have the crop dried sufficiently to begin stripping in late September or early October.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com