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Tobacco harvest: Good yield expected this year

Migrant workers toil under a sweltering August sun cutting tobacco on the farm Ben Webb’s family rents near Pine Grove. In a few hours, they will all be back before sunset to load the golden leaf onto wagons to take it to a barn where it will dry until it’s time to sell the crop.

In a time of innovation in agriculture, the way tobacco is grown and harvested isn’t that different from the way it was when Ben’s father and grandfather were young. Ben is 30 and a fifth-generation tobacco farmer.

The way it’s sold is different, though. Twenty years ago, farmers had quotas to grow a certain amount of burley tobacco under a federal price support program. It was then auctioned off to the highest bidder at the warehouses.

“I was young, but I remember my dad taking me with him” to the warehouses and the chant of the auctioneer.

Today, the crop is sold directly to the contractor. Production costs have increased, but the price is about the same as it was two decades ago, about $2 per pound if it’s a good crop.

“This should be fine,” Webb said of the crop being harvested. “This was some of the earlier tobacco we set out, so there shouldn’t be any problem getting it in the barn, but some of the later tobacco we set, it’s going to take longer to get to it, and it makes it kind of difficult.”

If it sits in the field longer than it should, that can be a problem, especially if there’s heavy rain.

“It’s important to remember that tobacco is a dry-weather crop,” Clay Stamm, Clark County’s Extension agent for agriculture, said. “There’s an old saying that you need one good rain after you set it, one good rain after you top it and one good rain in between, and you can grow a pretty good tobacco crop.”

Although only about a fourth to a third as much tobacco is grown as was 20 years ago, it’s still an important crop for Clark County farmers. For some, it’s their biggest source of income on the farm.

In 2017, there were 1,233 acres of farmland in Clark County in tobacco production, and Stamm said this year’s number should be about the same.

Stamm said he expects “a decent crop” this year in terms of yield.

It would be hard for farmers to harvest tobacco without the migrant workers, most of whom are from Mexico. The workers the Webbs have are here under the H2A program for temporary laborers.

The program helps the farmers, but the regulations and paperwork are “burdensome,” Stamm said.

“They almost need a full-time secretary to get that done, especially this year with the pandemic and moving people across borders,” he said. “It’s really a lot of hoops to jump through.”

The farm hands working this year at Pine Grove are from Puebla in southern Mexico and are all here legally.

About Randy Patrick

Randy Patrick is a reporter for Bluegrass Newsmedia, which includes The Jessamine Journal. He may be reached at 859-759-0015 or by email at randy.patrick@bluegrassnewsmedia.com.

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