Tobacco farmers try to save what’s left of crop

“I can bring tears to your eyes,” Wilson County farmer Wiley Boyette said Sunday night as he talked about what’s left behind of this year’s tobacco crop.

Damaged tobacco

Battered tobacco

Boyette along with his brothers, Michael and Robert, planted 600 acres of tobacco this spring.

Of those 600 acres, 45 to 50 have been completely harvested. Leaves on stalks on the remaining acres are “twisted, tangled, beat and bruised.”

“The tobacco is in bad shape,” Boyette said. “We’re in salvage mode right now. Battered and beaten tobacco doesn’t last long.”

Boyette and farmers across eastern North Carolina are in a race against time. There is a small window of time, a week or so at the most, where farmers can harvest either by hand or machine what tobacco leaves remain on the stalk. Beyond that, the damaged tobacco will most likely turn yellow and dry up right there on the stalk.

The tobacco will leaves blown to the ground won’t be saved.

“We’ll do the best we can,” Boyette said.

Starting today, the Boyette brothers will have all of their available help in the field setting up the tobacco and cropping it by hand. Boyette hopes they can get the harvesters in the field in a day or two if conditions dry out.

The Boyettes tend tobacco all across Wilson County. They have around 250 acres in Elm City and 250 acres in Stantonsburg. The rest, except for 50 acres around Wedgewood Golf Course, is in Rock Ridge.

The tobacco in Elm City and Stantonsburg has already been set up by hand one time this year due to storms.

“We got it stood back up and it was looking pretty good,” Boyette said. “Here, we go again. It will be a tough go of it. We went from a big crop to a short crop in a hurry.”

Boyette said at peak efficiency they can put in eight or nine barns of tobacco per day. But Boyette said there is no way they can save the tobacco crop under these circumstances.

“We’ll start (Monday) where the most tobacco is left at and try to salvage that first and go from there,” Boyette said. Boyette said damaged tobacco stayed in the field for about a week after Hurricane Fran. Boyette thinks the outcome after Hurricane Irene will be like Fran.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “Everybody is in the same boat. It’s a bad deal.”

Irene’s battering winds damaged other crops. But Boyette thinks some of them can be saved. Corn was knocked down but he hopes it can be picked up without losing a whole lot of it. The cotton is twisted, tangled and beat on the ground.

“Hopefully, it can recover if we get favorable weather here on in,” Boyette said. “We need dry weather now.”

Doug Webb has about 140 acres of tobacco in the Saratoga and Stantonsburg area.

“Whatever they told you is what happened here,” Webb said. “Everybody is in the same boat whether they are farming in Elm City, Saratoga or Kinston. This will be a devastating impact on a lot of farmers who rely on tobacco as one of their main cash crops.”

Like Boyette, the wind and rain beat Webb’s tobacco destroying the quality of the leaf. Sure, he’s got insurance and insurance will help pay on the bills. But the “profit’s in the good crop,” Webb said. “The crop damage of the magnitude we had yesterday (Saturday) is not recoverable.”

Webb spent Sunday cleaning up trying to get his tobacco curing barns up and running. Webb has generators and kept his barns going as much as he could. Their electricity was restored around lunch Sunday. He also continued to assess what’s left of his tobacco crop.

“We may have trouble with some in the barn,” Webb said. “You don’t know until you take it out.”

Webb’s plan of action for today was to take his one-row stripper machine and try to remove what leaves remain. He hopes to be able to bring the tobacco back in line enough on the row that he can get the machine through it. Otherwise, they’ll try to harvest by hand.

He has no plans to try to set the tobacco up by hand.

“Tobacco that is too old, too mature, you can’t set it up,” Webb said. “There may be some people who try to set it up. We think we know what we want to do but it may not be feasible.”

Webb said they’ve had a “bad inning” but in no way is he out of the game of farming. At 58 years old, Webb has been farming all of his life.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always done. We’re just a family farm. All we’re going to be doing is trying to hold on to what we’ve got here. I wish everybody else the best.”

Starting today, crews will be setting up tobacco by hand on Ron and David Lamm’s farm near Sims. The Lamm Brothers have 200 acres of tobacco this year.

Ron Lamm’s son, Tyler, said he’s not sure how many acres of their tobacco was damaged. His father has done most of the damage assessments. Like other farmers, Tyler said his father was trying to figure out a game plan.

Tyler’s been busy keeping fuel in the generator so they could keep the curing barns running. The Lamms rented a generator prior to Irene’s arrival. Electricity at the Lamm’s farm went out around 6 a.m. Saturday and was restored Sunday afternoon.

Barns with green tobacco in them that was harvested last week had to keep running else the green tobacco would start to rot without air circulating. Barnes with tobacco further along in the curing process could alternate running for periods of time.

“It could have been a whole lot worse,” Tyler said. “With all of this rain it’s going to be hard to hold it (tobacco) and to be able to get it in the barn without it going away in the field or burning up.”

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