07/14/06 — Tobacco acreage high in Wayne

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Tobacco acreage high in Wayne

By Turner Walston
Published in News on July 14, 2006 1:52 PM

Tobacco acreage in Wayne County increased by nearly 2,000 this year, but it has yet to reach the levels seen as recently as the mid-1990s.

Farmers in Wayne planted 7,686 acres this year, up from 5,736 in 2005.

Rick Tharrington, county executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency in Wayne, said acreage in the county is reaching levels close to the allotments set by the federal tobacco program a decade ago.

"We're seeing acreage increase, but we've got to remember back to what our quotas used to be. We're really seeing a quota level of the mid-90s," he said. "We're used to growing this much tobacco."

The federal government ended the price support program for tobacco two years ago. For more than 70 years, quotas limited the amount of tobacco farmers could sell. In 1997, 10,515 acres were allotted from Wayne County. The next year, the allotment was 8,295 acres. In 2004, the final year of the quota system, only 4,962 acres were planted.

The quota system forced many farmers to cap growth, Tharrington said.

"They weren't tending what they could tend," he said. "We still have people out there who had extra capacity to grow, and were ready to go back to that level."

Since the federal buyout, acreage has climbed in Wayne but the number of farmers has declined. Many older farmers saw a good time to get out of the business when the government announced it would buy their quotas for $7 a pound.

Extension agent Kevin Johnson said he estimates the number of tobacco farmers in Wayne this year at about 250 -- a far cry from the hundreds of farmers who once grew tobacco in the county.

Declining prices and increasing equipment costs made leaving the industry an easy decision for some farmers, Johnson said.

"They had an opportunity to get out," he said. "They were tired of tobacco. They weren't making as much money as they used to make, and when the buyout happened it was an opportunity just to get out."

Since the buyout, Tharrington said most of the county's growers contract directly with tobacco companies.

While the number of acres of tobacco under cultivation have increased since last year, the total acreage of crops reported is down from 2005.

Early this week, 145,338 acres had been reported for all crops. That's less than last year's 155,000 acres, but Tharrington said weather played a part. A wet June delayed the harvesting of wheat, which in turn put off planting soybeans on the same land. Soybeans to date have been reported at 41,193 acres, down from nearly 58,000 last year.

"We'd normally have about 157,000 acres reported (in total), so we're about 12,000 off. And all of that's probably soybeans."

Corn acreage came in at 29,270 acres, an increase of about 3,500 acres.

"That surprised me actually, that corn acres are up," Tharrington said. Growers were emboldened by a slightly better-than-average year in 2005, and were rewarded with summer rains that strengthened this year's crop, he said.

Wheat acres are down nearly 3,000 from last year to 20,772.

Peanuts, which grew by 800 acres from 2004 to last year, stabilized at 816 acres.

"You plant enough for that equipment to handle, and you don't plant any more," Tharrington said of the peanut crop.

Wayne farmers planted 25,316 acres of cotton, up more than 2,000 from last year. Growers also reported 1,213 acres of sweet potatoes, 1,426 of rye and 986 of millet.

The final numbers of acres may yet increase, as some growers have not yet reported, Tharrington said. The deadline for reporting on crop acreage was June 30. Farmers may still report crop acreage within 15 days of planting to avoid a late-filing fee.