INTERNATIONAL - Tobacco crops in North Carolina, the top U.S. producer, are right in the projected path for Hurricane Florence, which threatens to cause plants to rot, whether they’re still in the fields or have already been harvested.
Florence’s Category 4 winds are approaching the state at 130 miles per hour, strong enough for farmers to grow concerned that leaves will blow away and stunt the region’s harvest, Matthew Vann, a tobacco extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said in an interview. Flooding is another potential risk, as a deluge could leave plants sitting soaked in fields.
Crop losses could reach as high as $300 million, “assuming a 100 percent loss of what’s still in the field,” Vann said. “That would be a very sizable blow to the tobacco-grower base as a whole.”
North Carolina is forecast to harvest 158,800 acres this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While some of the most valuable leaves are still in the field, about two-thirds of the crop has already been gathered, said Andrea Ashby, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of agriculture. But for tobacco plants, harvest doesn’t guarantee leaves are safe from the storm.
Once picked, tobacco leaves are tightly packed and stored indoors, where the plants are cured for seven to eight days with fans that distribute and regulate heat. If a power outage occurs, the leaves could overheat, spoil and no longer be marketable.
Growers in the region -- largely along the Interstate 95 corridor in the eastern part of North Carolina -- have been buying backup generators to prepare. They can only help so much.
"Most growers are basically prepared to lose power at some point," Vann said. Even if the storm causes the weather to cool down, "that leaf is packed so tightly that ambient temperature outside doesn’t matter," leaving it vulnerable to rot, he said.
Altria Group Inc., which owns brands including Marlboro cigarettes and Skoal smokeless tobacco, has a plant in North Carolina and said it’s monitoring affects of the storm.
“If Florence stays on the current path and stalls over North Carolina with massive rainfall, it will definitely be devastating,” Charlotte Vick of Vick Family Farms, which produces tobacco and other crops in Wilson, said in an email. “We are taking measures today to harvest as much as possible before the storm and prepare with generators for our curing facilities and our housing for our employees.”