Tobacco plants at Downs Farms in Lebanon, KY.

Kentucky’s tobacco farmers are more focused than ever on worldwide production.

“Global burley production fell 25 percent in 2012, with much smaller crops in Africa and South America,” says Will Snell, UK Extension economist.

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That tight global supply of quality burley tobacco leaf led Kentucky farmers to plant 4,000 more burley tobacco acres in 2013.

In 2012, Kentucky grew 74,000 acres of burley tobacco valued at $300 million. That has decreased since 2004’s tobacco buyout – burley tobacco’s farm value exceeded $900 million some years in the 1990s.

But Kentucky is still the nation’s leading burley producer, and the state also leads in dark tobacco, with 13,200 acres planted west of I-65 in 2012.

Burley and Dark

Burley is primarily used for cigarettes, while dark is used in smokeless products, and the two tobaccos are physiologically distinct.

“Burley is more upright, with more leaves and a thinner leaf texture,” says Andy Bailey, UK Extension dark tobacco specialist. “Dark tobacco has a more sprawling growth habit, and its thicker leaves have a lot more chlorophyll than burley, giving it a darker green color.”

Producing both kinds of tobacco is labor-intensive, and accessing adequate harvest labor can be a challenge, particularly for burley tobacco growers.

Burley requires about 150 hours of labor per acre for planting, topping, cutting and air curing.

Air-cured dark tobacco takes about 30 hours more; most dark tobacco growers utilize the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Fire-cured dark tobacco is the most labor-intensive, requiring 240 work hours per acre from planting to market.

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Two-thirds of Kentucky’s dark tobacco is fire-cured, which means leaves are hung in metal buildings over smoldering hardwood fires for five to six weeks.

“That gives dark fired tobacco a lot of characteristics from hardwood smoke,” says Bailey.

Fire-cured is blended with air-cured dark tobacco to make U.S. Moist Snuff. Demand for smokeless tobacco products is rising.

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