Agronomic Services — News ReleaseFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MONDAY, NOV. 5, 2001
Contact: Peter Hight
Regional agronomist, Agronomic Division
Organic tobacco — something new on the horizonMACON — If you were driving on the back roads of North Carolina this summer, you may have come across fields of sunflowers in full bloom. Impressed by the colorful and spectacular view, you may not have realized you were actually looking at fields of tobacco in disguise.
These were not traditional fields of tobacco, but "certified organic tobacco"—grown without manufactured fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or insecticides. The sunflowers were there for pest control, attracting birds and beneficial insects that help destroy the "bad" insects in tobacco.
Organic tobacco may be considered environmentally wholesome, but its attraction to farmers is largely economic. On average, growers can expect to earn up to $4 a pound for organic tobacco compared to $1.80 for conventional tobacco. Going organic can mean more profit on smaller acreage.
For brothers Allen and Randy Ball of Vance County, shifting to organic tobacco has provided an opportunity for their sons to go into farming with them and to keep the family on the land. Even so, the change has proved to be challenging.
Unlike many alternative crops, organic tobacco has only been grown in North Carolina for about five years. Since there is little crop production history, farmers are still trying to determine the best way to manage and raise the crop. One of the biggest unknowns has been fertilization.
In 1999, it was becoming evident that Chilean nitrate—once a common fertilizer for organic crops—would not be allowed for use on certified organic tobacco after 2001 because some leaf export markets objected to it. Other organic fertilizers were available, but there was little reliable information on how quickly they release nitrogen and what amounts were readily available to plants. There were concerns that organic tobacco fertilized with these materials would stay green too long and not cure properly.
The Balls had the foresight to start planning early for the 2002 planting season. They presented the fertilizer problem to Peter Hight, a regional agronomist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Hight and the Balls drew up plans for a three-year field test and convinced another grower, James Williams of Granville County, to work with them on the study.
Today they have the data needed to compare Chilean nitrate to other acceptable organic fertilizers, such as blood meal, poultry litter, bone meal, meat meal and feather meal. They have measured nitrogen levels in the soil and in plant tissue through two growing seasons to find out how much nitrogen is released and how quickly it is absorbed by the plants.
Many growers had assumed organic fertilizers needed to be applied several weeks before planting so the material would have time to break down and release nitrogen. Hight's work has shown that if growers put out fertilizer in March, then much of the nitrogen is already gone by the time plants are set out in May. Applying organic fertilizer about two weeks before planting has worked well.
This study has also enabled Hight to come up with an estimate of available nitrogen to share with farmers. When an organic source is applied, he has found that about 45 percent of the nitrogen in the product is available. Guidelines like this help growers decide how much fertilizer to apply before planting and how much to add later as sidedressing.
Next spring, the Balls, the Williams' and other growers will be ready for a season without Chilean nitrate. "We're grateful for the work Peter's done. He's a dedicated fellow," said Allen Ball. "This is our fifth year working on organic tobacco, and we continue to make progress every year," added Randy Ball.
Hight is the NCDA&CS regional agronomist serving Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, Vance and Warren counties. He is available to visit or consult with growers in these counties who need help taking agronomic samples, adjusting fertilizer programs, pinpointing nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, identifying nematode problems, or interpreting agronomic reports.