Growers See the Light in Growing Dark
Dark Tobacco is gaining wider acceptance, and in some areas is actually replacing burley acreage. What is making more growers go dark?
by David Williams
Much of the immediate future of the tobacco industry may be unfolding within a 30-county band of territory along the western portion of the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
Look west of Interstate 65, from Bowling Green, Ky., down to Mayfield. Go south from Gallatin, Tenn., over to just west of Dover. Along with the burley tobacco and other traditional crops, growers tend to a tobacco leaf of a different color— a noticeably darker green, nearly purplish-green hue.
Welcome to Dark Country.
From this swath of hills and fields come more dark air-cured tobacco and dark fire-cured tobacco than anywhere else in the country—and it’s because very little of the dark leaf is grown anywhere else.
Why? Dark tobacco can be grown nearly anywhere tobacco is raised, and the leaf prices are better for dark than burley or flue-cured. In the case of dark, however, it is part practicality and part quality.
Practically speaking, people that buy dark tobacco get it from the traditional source. Growers outside Dark Country see no profit in hauling their crop back into Dark Country to Hopkinsville or Springfield to sell it.
The quality side of the equation is as simple as why people buy hand-rolled cigars, Memphis barbecue or Kentucky bourbon—it is a high-quality product made by people who know what they are doing, practicing a craft that borders on artisanal in its timing and skill in production.
Dark tobaccos of both varieties are the key ingredients in the production of smokeless tobaccos—chewing tobacco, snuff and moist smokeless. This sector of the market, despite shrinkage in cigarette sales as smoking bans and higher taxes have taken their toll, has actually grown—by as much as 3 to 5 percent a year for the last several years.
That increase in sales has piqued the interests of smokeless companies like U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, which has partnered with dark growers for decades. Other tobacco companies are seeking a more “total tobacco” presence to take advantage of the increase in popularity, which has sparked a 25 percent acreage increase in dark tobacco this season, according to Andy Bailey, dark tobacco specialist for the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee.
“If you look at the whole area for both Kentucky and Tennessee, we were at about 19,000 acres last year in total for dark fired and for dark air-cured,” he said. “We are looking at about 25,000 acres total this year. That was about a 16 to 18 percent increase in acreage from last year compared to 2006, and we are looking at about 25 percent or so increase this year. So it is a growing market.”
It is a profitable market, too.
“Although we have fewer plants in the field, we are going to out-yield a burley crop in the same conditions,” said Bailey. “Our dark air-cured yield on average is going to be almost 3,000 pounds an acre, and dark fire-cured will be around 3,300 to 3,400 pounds an acre. That compares to burley in this area that might be 2,700 to 2,800 pounds an acre.”
Growers have less say in their contracts for dark leaf. Buyers generally specify how much they will purchase from a grower, unlike a burley or flue-cured contract, where the grower states how much he will grow for the buyer.
But growers are steadily replacing burley fields for the higher profits of dark. George Marks, president of the Burley Tobacco Stabilization and a grower of both burley and dark himself, sees it as a move that could affect the supply and demand situation for dark.
“I bet that supply is quickly outpacing the demand, and the demand is inching up, but it is not going to go up as fast as supply is,” he said. “That kind of concerns me that in the next few years, we will have a shakedown.”
Marks said that some growers in the last couple of years have been growing over their contract. Bailey acknowledged that dark is being overproduced, but not many growers are doing it and not with a large amount of leaf.
“They do that as kind of insurance to make sure that they make their pounds,” he said. “Up until last year, with a lot of companies, if you were five pounds over your contract when you delivered, you took those five pounds home with you. But last year, for the first time, there was some leniency with that and they were buying that overage at a reduced price. If they are thinking the same thing will occur this year, there may be more of that. Depending on what the market does, that could be a problem.”
Burley growers are accounting for the switch to dark, and mostly because of the increased profit potential. Many growers raise both burley and dark varieties, and in the last two years many of them have increased their dark acreage or gotten out of burley entirely.
Bill Maksymowicz, a retired dark specialist with Kentucky Cooperative Extension who now works with Burley Tobacco Stabilization, understands the motivation of growers making the switch.
“When you get into the fire-cured, you have got the (costs of) slabs and sawdust, additional expenses there,” he said. “But when you look at the selling prices—in burley if you can average $1.65 to $1.70 you have done well, and we are going to looking at 60 cents a pound above that for dark types … I know quite a few folks who just plain got out of the burley business this year because there is better profit potential for them in the dark right now.”
The difference of dark
Burley growers can easily make the transition to growing dark when they make some adjustments to how they do business—small but important adjustments, according to Bailey, beginning with a lower plant population. Dark plants set at approximately 5,000 plants per acre, where burley sets as many as 6,500 to 7,000.
“The tobacco transplanters will have to be reset to not put as many plants out, setting them wider,” Bailey said. “Come topping time, we are going to top lower than you would burley, to leave about 16 to 18 leaves on the dark plant, where burley is typically topped at 22-24 leaves. It is going to be a shorter, stockier plant, but it is a lot bulkier, thicker plant.”
The varieties are similar as far as susceptibility to disease and insect damage. Dark has fewer varieties to choose from as far as resistance to diseases such as black shank and does not carry the same level of resistance, although it is improving.
“For dark you really have to use all the tools against black shank, and you do in burley too, but you have to be real conscious of crop rotation, more so than you might think with burley,” said Bailey. He said more fungicides such as Ridomil are used in dark production because of the lower amount of resistance bred in the plant.
Dark tobacco sets later in the season than burley or flue-cured, and Bailey said that can bring more of an insect problem. “With the pesticides we have now, you do not see as much of a difference in the field because we are controlling the pests,” he said.
Dark growers do not use as much MH as flue-cured or burley growers do, since it tends to discolor the dark leaves. The little MH that is used is drop lined. Growers use fatty acids and alcohol or local systemics like Prime Plus or Butralin instead of MH.
The real difference with growing dark tobacco comes with the harvest—and the cure. Dark tobacco will wait from five weeks after topping to as long as seven weeks to begin the harvest. The leaf has to be carefully handled at harvest to reduce damage, and then field-wilted before going into a barn.
“With that thickness of the leaf, there are a lot of implications come harvest time,” said Bailey. “You can’t just go into the field and harvest the whole field at one time, like you might burley. With burley, you would cut a plant down and put it right on the stick in the same operation. With dark tobacco, we cut a section down very gently and leave it down for a period of time to field-wilt prior to putting it on a stick because it is very susceptible to leaf breakage, and to sunburn, too.”
Depending on the sunlight, field-wilting time can vary from thirty minutes to three hours. Then the tobacco can go on a wire-strung wagon – not laid flat – and kept in the shade or even in a barn for another day to complete the wilt.
“When folks see air-cured tobacco, they think you are drying the tobacco,” said Maksymowicz. “Actually, it is not dry—it is a two-stage biological process where the chlorophyll breaks down and your color changes. You first cure it, and then you dry it. If you dry it without curing it, you end up with that golden leaf, like flue-cured. This is a different process, a controlled, biological process that you try to control to get all the desirable changes without providing an environment where you have got fungi, bacteria or whatever that is chewing on the tobacco and stealing pounds and stealing quality.”
The main difference in curing air-cured dark and burley lies in the stick spacing.
“If you have got it packed in too tight, you are going to get the micro-organism growth that translates into not just yield loss and losing pounds, but losing quality and really undesirable cured leaf chemistry from a manufacturer’s standpoint,” said Maksymowicz. “So having it spaced out is part of walking that fine line.”
Bailey said that where burley uses approximately 6 inches of spacing between sticks in a barn, the thicker dark leaf needs more room—at least 9 inches for dark-fired and up to 12 inches for dark-air-cured.
“Our recommendation for dark air-cured is wider (than 9 inches), because with heat you can draw the tobacco down more to where it is a lot less likely to house-burn because you’ve got that heat drying it down faster,” he said. “With dark air-cured, we’ll recommend in a lot of cases 10- to 12-inch stick spacing for dark air-cured, and for dark-fired maybe 9- to 11-inch stick spacing.”
Maksymowicz said it would take six to eight weeks to cure an air-cured crop, if the weather conditions were optimum.
The fire-cured process
Curing a fire-cured dark crop is an artisanlike craft. According to Bailey, it is “a lot more
art than science.”
“It is the same principle (as the flue-cured process), but we do it with wood slabs and sawdust, which kind of controls the fire,” said Marks. “But as far as using thermostats and ways to control the heat, we do not have that. It is more of an art than it is anything.” Bailey went over the curing process his crew uses at the UK/UT Princeton Farm, which he said was “by no means exact, because a lot of folks do it different.”
Once hung, the tobacco will stay in the barn for five to eight days before it is first fired. The leaf will get maybe about halfway through the yellowing phase before firing. The curing barn is tight, well insulated and large enough to accommodate the wider-spaced sticks. Fires made of wood slab and sawdust burn on the floor under the tobacco. Unlike a flue-cured cure that takes five to seven days, a fire-cured process can take three to five firings and last five to eight weeks.
“That first fire will be kind of a low heat, not a lot of smoke, either, about a 95- to 100-degree fire on that tobacco throughout the barn,” he said. “The first fire will last three to four days at the most, and we will fire it again, and by the second fire you are into that color-setting phase, where it will finish up the yellowing and you have got some brown color coming through.”
The leaf is almost solid brown after the second fire, and the third fire dries the crop down, bringing the temperature up from 95 degrees on the first fire to a high of 135 degrees on the third. The final two fires use less heat and more smoke as the smoke residue adheres to the surface of the leaf.
“Before we start the finishing fire, we want the tobacco to have some order in it,” Bailey said. “It is going to stick more smoke finish if it has some moisture in it. Even though you have just dried it down, you are hoping to get some moisture in it, even it means going in there and putting some moisture to the barn floor. Then give it one or two fires for the smoke finish to stick to it, and it will be ready to take down.”
Bailey said some growers can fire-cure a crop with two or three fires, but they use more wood to burn the fire longer.
Off to market
After the tobacco is taken down, stripping is done with three stalk positions—lugs, second and leaf. There is no tip grade in dark tobacco—“if you top down to 16-18 leaves, some of your longest leaves will be in the top of the plant,” said Bailey.
The plant is baled in an oriented leaf position, butt of the leaf out, in 4-inch-thick boxed “flakes.” These go into baskets, or into a 250-pound bale box, to the receiving station.
Maksymowicz mentioned that dark leaf is not a magic-bullet fix for growers seeking profit recovery after seasons of increased costs.
“The number-one question you have to ask, just like when we started losing acreage on tobacco and tomatoes [were] going to be the salvation, and chrysanthemums were going to be the salvation, and so many other things were going to be the salvation, then folks realized, ‘Wait a minute. Who is going to buy it?’” he said. “If you are in an area that grows good-quality burley, with some attention and care, you could probably grow some decent-quality dark, but the question is, who could you sell it to? It is still a matter of demand, no matter what.”
Maksymowicz noted that while demand is high now, that demand is rooted in marketing strategies that even the companies have not completely bought into yet.
“How long is that demand going to last?” he said. “If we look at the history of tobacco purchasing in general, it generally doesn’t last too long. It looks good right now, but whether it is going to stay there is a good question.”
Bailey said that a prime factor in the increase of dark acreage was the entry of Philip Morris into the market. The company is buying dark leaf through dealers as it ramps up its smokeless presence, and it has created the potential for more dark leaf sales.
“They are making a snuff product now, and our main market for dark fired and dark air-cured tobacco will be domestic moist snuff,” Bailey said. “Their snuff product has driven the acreage increase in the last two years … I would imagine that over time, by next year for sure, assuming that Philip Morris’ snuff product does well and they an have increased demand for dark tobacco to make the snuff product, they will probably start buying some direct themselves.”
Marks is one who believes dark tobacco is a crop still on the way up.
“It’s a trend in the tobacco industry,” he said. “These days, you can’t smoke anywhere in a public place. It is really beginning to take a toll on the consumption. Whereas dark is a little more acceptable because there is no smoke involved—I know the health folks don’t like it either, but it does not have the problems that you do with smoking.
“I think it is the only growth segment in the industry right now, and I see it continuing to grow.”