University of Tennessee researchers help tobacco growers


Tennessee has been a big tobacco-producing state, but in recent years acreage has dropped significantly.

Still farmers grow it, and research at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture is providing information to producers using experimental tobacco crops.

In winter, farmers strip tobacco, pulling leaves from the stalks by hand.

If a farmer wants his tobacco to go from the curing barn to the sale barn, there’s only one way to get the crop ready.

Tobacco is still stripped by hand. Workers grab the leaves and pull, and keep pulling.

Think typing all day on your computer is tough? This is exhausting work.

“There have been efforts in the past and there are continuing efforts to mechanize this process. But most of the research that we’ve shown through the years, it comes back down to that method of pulling if off by hand,” said Rob Ellis, with UT AgResearch.

The farm crew at the UT AgResearch Center in Greeneville strips about two dozen acres of experimental tobacco grown there.

Researchers look for varieties resistant to diseases such as black shank and blue mold.

“One of the main areas that we have from a research standpoint is developing new varieties of burley as well as dark-fired cured which is grown in other parts of the state,” said Ellis.

Tennessee grew as much as 50,000 acres of tobacco as recently as the mid-90s, but now grows about 15,000 acres a year.

There are several reasons for the decrease. Tobacco has the stigma of being used for chewing and cigarettes. With a drop in smoking, there’s not as much need for the crop.

Also, a tobacco buyout in 2004, resulted in a changing market for farmers and their product. Since then, many producers decided to stop growing the crop.

“One of the main reasons we’ve seen such a decrease in acreage is simply because the profit margin per acre or per pound has decreased so much,” said Ellis.

Ellis says tobacco may be down, but it’s not gone, and remains a part of Tennessee’s agricultural heritage.

“Even in recent years it still ranks in the top five agricultural crops in the state of Tennessee,” he said.

In the future, possible niche markets for tobacco include gardening and medicine.

But one thing about tobacco farming hasn’t changed. When it comes to market prep, it takes hard work and strong hands.

Farmers now are selling their tobacco for about two dollars per pound – a price that’s risen slightly in recent years.

This report is from our partners at the University of Tennessee.